HELSINKI – If Yevgeni Malkin isn’t the world’s best player right now, he’s sure close. The towering centre scored a semi-final hat trick to lift Russia over Finland 6-2 and into the gold medal game. Dethroned and dejected, the host Finns will play the Czech Republic-Slovakia loser for bronze.
Click here for a video with post-game quotes.
“My linemates helped me a lot. You can't just score goals on your own,” Malkin said. “We know Finland is a good team so we didn't expect to win by a similar score to what we beat Norway by.”
It was a dramatic afternoon for Malkin, the reigning NHL scoring champion and current tournament points leader. He was injured after falling into the boards in the second period, but came back to make sure Russia will vie for its first world title since Switzerland 2009.
Sergei Shirokov earned a goal and an assist for Russia, while Alexander Ovechkin and Denis Kokarev added singles, and Alexander Popov Nikita Nikitin had a pair of helpers. The Russian power play had a stellar day, clicking three times on four opportunities.
Janne Niskala and Mikael Granlund replied for the Finns. Their effort wasn’t in question as they strove to retain their crown from Slovakia 2011. But they simply fell apart, failing to keep up with their equally motivated and more skilled Russian opponents.
“We have played Finland before and I know the coach, so we knew what kind of a team they were and what to expect,” Russian head coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov said. “They are a good team, but certainly we're surprised the score wasn't closer. We're very happy.”
Once again, the “home ice curse” of the IIHF World Championship has claimed its victim. No host team has won this tournament since the Soviet Union in 1986.
“For some reason, we couldn't build on our good start,” Finland’s Janne Niskala said. “We didn't get enough pucks deep into their zone and they could play their transition game. We gave them too much space, but you win as a team and lose as a team.”
In a battle between the tournament’s two top goalies, Russia’s Semyon Varlamov outdid Finland’s Petri Vehanen. Finland outshot Russia 31-23.
With the victory, Russia gained revenge for its 3-0 loss to Finland in last year’s semi-finals in Bratislava. Russia now owns a slight advantage in the all-time series between these two nations at the Worlds in the post-Soviet era: seven wins, one tie, and six losses. (The Finns lost 37 straight to the USSR from 1954 to 1991.)
Early on, it looked good for the Finns. They set a fast, intense tone. At 7:28, Finland drew first blood when Niskala accepted a Petri Kontiola pass at the centre point and fired a howitzer, which tipped off the stick blade of Russian forward Denis Kokarev and high past Varlamov.
Russia took the game’s first penalty at 11:06 as Alexei Tereshenko rushed to the net and stuck out his right leg to trip Vehanen. It was nothing doing for the Finnish power play, however. With plenty of Russian fans on hand, competing chants of “Shaibu!” and “Suomi!” rained down from the Hartwall Arena crowd of 13,239.
“We knew we still had lots of time to play,” Pavel Datsyuk said about the goal. “We just had to calm down and keep playing.”
Malkin tied it at 1-1 at 15:33, snaring the rebound from a Nikita Nikitin blast to Vehanen’s left and firing it home from a bad angle with traffic in the crease.
The momentum was now visibly shifting in Russia’s favour. Ossi Väänänen was dinged for Finland’s first minor, hauling down Alexander Svitov.
Malkin gave Russia a 2-1 lead with 55 seconds left in the period. The Russians circled like sharks down low, with Shirokov feeding Nikolai Zherdev, who set up Malkin right in the slot for a quick release that squeezed through Vehanen’s pads.
“We had a chance to get to play for the gold, but didn't take it,” said Jussi Jokinen. “Russia was very effective and capitalized on their chances. We started well, dominated the game for the first 15 minutes, but they used their two chances in the period.”
In the seventh minute of the second period, Malkin rushed into the Finnish zone, shadowed by Finnish defenceman Joonas Järvinen, and crashed heavily into the end boards. The Russian superstar left the game in evident pain, and Järvinen was given a tripping penalty. Malkin would return a few minutes later, however, after healing up and getting some work done on his skates.
At 9:47, Ovechkin circled out of the corner in the Finnish zone, eluded Finnish defenders, and zinged one high past Vehanen on the short side. It was the two-time NHL MVP’s second goal in as many games since joining Russia for the elimination games.
Finnish captain Mikko Koivu went to the box with just over three minutes left in the period for a slash on Tereshenko along the boards. It was a crucial penalty, and Malkin made Finland pay with his hat trick goal for a 4-1 lead.
You could see it coming. The Russians worked the puck around the zone with old-school precision, and Ilya Nikulin set up the Pittsburgh Penguins superstar for a one-timer from the top of the right faceoff circle, perfectly placed inside the far post. In an unusual scene for the World Championship, the ice was littered with hats by Russian fans. Malkin now owns the tournament goals lead with 10.
Just 1:05 into the third period, any fantasy of a Finnish comeback died when Kokarev’s wraparound attempt deflected in off Väänänen’s stick to make it 5-1.
Jessse Joensuu took a kneeing penalty on Yevgeni Medvedev behind the Russian net, and the ensuing power play yielded the 6-1 Russian goal. Vehanen gloved down a Yevgeni Biryukov point shot but couldn’t corral the puck, and it trickled loose behind him for Shirokov to poke in.
“I knew what to expected, their new coach also has them defending well,” said Finnish goalkeeper Petri Vehanen. “It wasn't the best game of my career, but not the worst, either. We lost as a team. I don't think back at the goals, what's done is done.”
As the clock counted down, the arena resounded with triumphant shouts of “Molodtsy!” (“Good fellows!”) from the Russian fans.
“We know they've been playing well and it's their home arena. It was tough. The fans helped them a lot,” Pavel Datsyuk said. “We can still play better, I think. But those details are secret.”
The home crowd got a little something to cheer about with 3:56 when Granlund skated past the Russian goal and tipped in Jarvinen’s shot to make it 6-2. But it certainly wasn’t on par with the lacrosse-style goal he scored on Russia in last year’s semis, nor would it have the same deadly effect.
Instead, it was only Finland’s dream of repeating as champions that perished today.
The team’s three best players were named in a subdued atmosphere at the end: Juuso Hietanen, Valtteri Filppula, and Mikko Koivu. For Russia, it was Semyon Varlamov, Ilya Nikulin, and (unsurprisingly) Yevgeni Malkin.