HELSINKI – Five years ago, the Finns broke one spell against Russia in World Championship hockey. In Saturday’s first semi-final, the blue-and-white defending champions are eager to move one step closer to ending the dreaded “home ice curse”.
“The home crowd gives us energy, and there are always moments in games when a team needs that boost,” said Finnish defenceman Lasse Kukkonen. “It’s a fantastic feeling to hear them cheer us.”
But Finland has also thrived against Russia in a hostile atmosphere.
At the 2007 Worlds, Mikko Koivu, Finland’s returning captain for 2012, scored the overtime winner in the semi-final against the host Russians. And stunningly, that marked the first time Russia had ever lost a Worlds game in Moscow, dating back to 1957.
The episode helped heat up what has evolved into a remarkably tight rivalry.
On Friday, Russian Hockey Federation president Vladislav Tretiak said: “It’s time to take revenge.” He was referring to Finland’s two straight wins over Russia last year, including a 3-0 semi-final blanking that killed Russian hopes of a fourth straight gold medal game appearance.
Furthermore, even though Russia shut out Finland at the Worlds in 2008 (4-0) and 2010 (5-0), the Finns haven’t lost to their eastern border rivals at the Olympics since 1998, triumphing 3-1 in Salt Lake City and 4-0 in Turin.
You get the picture. Generally, these two teams are quite evenly matched nowadays – forget about the Iron Curtain era when the Soviet Union dominated Finland.
So how is this semi-final in Helsinki going to play out?
On paper, the big, speedy Russians have one major advantage: offensive firepower. Coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov’s group of forwards now includes NHL scoring leader Yevgeni Malkin, super-gunner Alexander Ovechkin, and arguably the world’s premier two-way player in Pavel Datsyuk.
“This team is as good as any I've played on,” said Datsyuk. “Not only are we able to attack, but [we also] play good defence. We play together as a team and it shows in this tournament.”
With due respect to Valtteri Filppula (10 points), Mikko Koivu (9 points), and Jussi Jokinen (8 points), the Finns don’t have anyone up front whose resumes compare to the aforementioned three NHL MVP candidates.
The gap only becomes more pronounced when you factor in Alexander Syomin, who debuted with two assists in Russia’s 5-2 quarter-final win over Norway. Throw in KHL talents like Alexander Popov (9 points) and Alexander Perezhogin (8 points) and it almost seems unfair.
Thus far, Russia has outscored Finland by a 4-to-3 margin: 32 goals in eight games, compared to 24.
But is hope lost for Finland? Far from it. The Nordic nation’s renowned defensive tenacity is what potentially could turn this into a very long afternoon for Russia.
Finnish coach Jukka Jalonen’s troops have the discipline and physical presence to take away the neutral zone, and to force Russia to play along the wall when they enter the Finnish end. If Finland’s on top of its game, that is.
Rest assured that Jalonen has told his players to remain aware of Russia’s penchant for the stretch pass – the kind that Alexei Yemelin gave Alexander Popov for the 2-1 goal against Norway on Thursday. If there are many breakaways or 2-on-1’s, things are probably going Russia’s way.
Finnish offence will come from forcing the Russians into turnovers, getting pucks to the net, and looking for rebounds, delivering more of a simple, North American-style attack.
And there are a couple of young Finns with offensive potential who could elevate their reputations in this tilt.
Mikael Granlund, Finland’s budding 20-year-old star forward who’s coming off a career-best 51-point season with HIFK Helsinki, has not shone thus far as he did last year in Slovakia. There, he had nine points en route to the title, including the YouTube moment of his lacrosse-style goal on Russia in the semis. Despite sitting at just four assists so far this year, Granlund might have another miracle in store.
Jesse Joensuu entered Finnish folklore in the 3-2 quarter-final win over the Americans when he scored his second goal of the night to win it with 8.8 seconds left. The 24-year-old former New York Islander, who now plays for Sweden’s HV71, has to be riding an emotional high.
What about the blueline corps for both teams? Russia’s D-men have a little more offensive potential, from captain Ilya Nikulin (5 points) to Alexei Yemelin (4 points). But there’s nobody here who rivals a young Sergei Gonchar or Andrei Markov. If the Finns can clamp down with Jalonen’s unusual eight-man rotation on the back end, they could nullify any edge Russia might possess. Notably, Finland’s penalty kill is clicking at 85.7 percent so far, significantly better than Russia’s 70.83 percent.
The goaltending duel, featuring the top two statistical performers in this tournament, could prove to be a classic. Lukko Rauma veteran Petri Vehanen returns between the pipes for Finland, seeking his second straight gold. Colorado Avalanche starter Semyon Varlamov is hoping to make up for the disappointment of falling short with Russia in the 2010 final versus the Czech Republic.
“Defending the championship is not going to be easy, but that’s what we’re here for,” said Vehanen. “I see a lot of similar elements in this team [compared to] the 2011 team. We work hard, we’re a team, and the dressing room is good.”
Now, objectively, if this year’s Russian team plays to its full potential, it should move on to the finals. But in front of a frenzied, flag-waving Hartwall Arena crowd, the Finns will bring a level of emotion and desperation that could lift them past Russia, and put them in a position to become the first team since 1986 to take gold at home. Get ready for a great matchup.