Champs vs favourites

It's a clash of the Titans in the SF

24.05.2014
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Russia's Sergei Shirokov with a scoring chance on Swedish goalkeeper Viktor Fasth in the last World Championship clash between these two nations, a 7-3 win for Russia in Stockholm in 2012. Photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images

Sweden claims history is on its side, while Russia is looking to its undoubted star quality to settle the game. This semi-final clash is likely to be close.

It’s a mouth-watering match-up – the defending champion against this year’s red-hot favourite. When Sweden takes on Russia in Saturday’s early semi-final, it promises to be a great game.

At first glance Russia has the starrier roster: the Swedes have nobody of the calibre of Yevgeni Malkin or Alexander Ovechkin suited up and ready to go in this one, with head coach Par Marts bringing a very different team from the one that won Olympic silver earlier this year.

But Sweden has made solid if unspectacular progress through the competition and showed great resilience to overcome a pressure-cooker of a quarter-final against Belarus in dramatic fashion.

That was in stark contrast with Russia’s breeze past the French earlier on Thursday, and many would point to the day’s events at Minsk Arena as further evidence for Russia’s supremacy here.

Even so the French did enough to suggest that Russia’s rampant attack – so far every forward except Yevgeni Dadonov has scored at least once – can be frustrated. The Germans showed the same for the first two periods in the group stage, and that gives Sweden grounds for optimism.

Defenceman Mattias Ekholm is confident that Russia’s big guns can be spiked. “There are some great talents on the Russian team,” he said. “They’ve got guys like Malkin and Ovechkin, and we can’t afford to give them space to play.

“But we’ve also got some skilled forwards and it will be a tough game for both teams. I hope we can be the first team to beat Russia in Minsk, and more than that I believe we can.”

There is recent history on Sweden’s side as well, though. Tre Kronor outperformed Russia in last year’s Worlds and had a more successful Olympic tournament. In head-to-head contests, meanwhile, the Swedes can point to a recent Euro Hockey Tour success just before this competition – and Marts did exactly that.

“Lots of people make Russia favourites to win the whole tournament, but don’t forget that we recently beat them in Stockholm in the Eurotour,” he said. “There’s no reason why we can’t do it again. We’ve got a good chance, but we’ll have to play better than we did against Belarus, especially in defence.”

That 2-0 win saw Ovechkin go pointless as Russia named a line-up that wasn’t too far removed from the team that has played in Minsk, adding extra weight to Swedish optimism.

But Vadim Shipachyov, Russia’s first-line centre, is certain that the World Championship is an entirely different affair.

“The defeat in the Eurotour doesn’t mean anything here,” he said. “That’s a different kind of hockey. We need two more wins here then we can relax.”

Shipachyov’s winning formula involves a more reliable power play – “we can’t let teams off the hook like we did with France, and on a 5v3 we have to score” – and a strong team showing.

Russia’s head coach Oleg Znarok also recognised some power play problems. At the start of Thursday’s quarter-final he sent out a special team with Malkin and Ovechkin together, but soon reverted to the prepared first and second lines.

After the game he told journalists: “It doesn’t matter why we changed it, but we need to work on some slightly different combinations. Games like this are tough to win so we have to get the special teams right.”

Russia faces Sweden on Saturday at 14:45 local time in Minsk Arena, with the winner facing either Finland or the Czech Republic in Sunday's final.

ANDY POTTS

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