Can Finland get past Russia?
by Lucas Aykroyd|25 MAY 2019
Here we meet again: In the last meeting Russia with goaltender Andrei Vasilevski beat Finland with Atte Ohtamaa 5-3 in the 2017 bronze medal game in Cologne.
photo: Matt Zambonin / HHOF-IIHF Images
It has become a familiar scenario when Russia and Finland clash in IIHF competition. On paper, Russia has a much better team. In practice, not a single Finn cares about that. And that goes for the fans as well as the players.

Of course, coach Jukka Jalonen’s crew must take the Russian superstars seriously in Saturday’s early semi-final at Ondrej Nepela Arena. Yet the Finns can take confidence from recent history, knowing they’ve beaten Russia in many playoff games when the gold medal remains up for grabs. 

You want quarter-finals? Take the 2014 Olympic quarter-final in Sochi. You want semi-finals? Take the 2006 Olympic semi-final in Turin, the 2007 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship semi-final in Moscow, the 2011 semi-final in Bratislava, and the 2016 semi-final in Moscow.

Finland’s Juho Lammikko (Florida Panthers), one of just two NHL players on this year’s unheralded roster, is taking a typically stoic approach: “If you want to win gold, you have to beat whoever comes your way. You have to beat the best teams.”

By eliminating defending champion Sweden on diminutive forward Sakari Manninen’s 5-4 overtime winner, the Finns have proved they’re capable of doing just that. They showed great character by never wilting when Tre Kronor took leads of 3-1 and 4-3. The towering Marko Anttila tied it up with his first of the tournament with just 1:29 left and goalie Kevin Lankinen pulled for the extra skater.

This Finnish squad does everything decently and nothing badly, from its power play (6-for-24) to its penalty-killing (80 percent). Manninen, the leading scorer (2+8+10), is the only Finn in double digits, and he’s followed by 18-year-old Kaapo Kakko (6+1=7), who started so brilliantly but has now had just one goal in his last six games. Defenceman Mikko Lehtonen (1+6=7) has quietly assembled a strong tournament – he’s the only Suomi blueliner with a power play goal. 

“Our teamwork, our work ethic, we’re a hard-working team,” said Manninen, who totalled four points against Sweden. “We know if we believe and put it all together, we have a chance to win.”

The Finns should win their share of faceoffs against Russia. Two veteran forwards who have never played at the Worlds before and will be Lulea teammates next season have been dominant at the dot.

 Arttu Ilomaki, 27, is third-best in the tournament (68.8 percent) and Juhani Tyrvainen, 28, sits tenth (61.9 percent). Both easily outstrip their nearest Russian competitors. Those are a couple of centres you may have heard about: Yevgeni Kuznetsov (56.6 percent), the 2018 Stanley Cup playoff scoring leader, and Yevgeni Malkin (54.7 percent), a two-time world champion, two-time NHL scoring leader, and three-time Stanley Cup champion.

Russian coach Ilya Vorobyov said that even with eight straight wins in Bratislava, he’s not completely satisfied: “There’s always something to work on. We want to keep getting better, so there’s always something to improve. But we’ll keep that within the room.”

That Russian room contains an Olympic-caliber roster, blending the best of last year’s gold-medal squad in PyeongChang with certified NHL legends. The funny thing is that Kuznetsov (2+4=6), Malkin (1+5=6), and Alexander Ovechkin (2+1=3) haven’t needed to take over games in order for Russia to prevail. Unquestionably, the three most explosive forwards have been reigning NHL scoring champ Nikita Kucherov (6+10=16) and his linemate Nikita Gusev (4+11=15), plus Yevgeni Dadonov (7+4=11), who boasts a tournament-leading four power play goals.

The Finns may have survived a run-and-gun affair with the Swedes, but they’ll have a much better chance in the semi-final if they can keep Russia to two or fewer goals. That means trying to slow things down in the neutral zone and capitalizing on their chances when they come.

None of that will be easy. The Americans, who lost 4-3 to Russia in the quarter-final, have much bigger names on defence, like Ryan Suter and Alec Martinez, and were still outshot 43-32. And Andrei Vasilevski is a huge show-stealer as arguably one of the world’s top five goalies. The two-time Vezina Trophy nominee has the best GAA (1.67) and save percentage (93.7) among the still-competing Worlds netminders.

Vasilevski is well-protected, too. Not only are Russia’s forwards coming back to help out, but stalwart blueliners like Vladislav Gavrikov are making big defensive plays with good sticks and sufficient physicality. That’s enabled the marquee defencemen, like Dmitri Orlov and Mikhail Sergachyov, to shine with six points and a +10 plus-minus rating apiece.

Russia leads the 2019 Worlds with a 40-10 goal difference and 90.4 penalty-killing percentage.

The arena will be loud and proud in support of Russia, as defenceman Nikita Zadorov noted: “Our fans are really helping us. It’s like playing in front of a home crowd and that’s great. At the hotel where we’re staying, there are many fans. We know that back home people are also sitting in front of the television, waiting for the games, rooting for us. And that helps us.”

Although this rivalry has become much more even, compared to the old days of Soviet shellackings, the Russians can draw on positive recent history against Finland. En route to gold, they defeated Finland in the 2008 Worlds semi-final in Quebec City, the 2012 semi-final in Helsinki, and the 2014 final in Minsk. Their last meeting was a 5-3 Russian win in the 2017 bronze medal game in Cologne.

Still, Russia must avoid overconfidence. It’s going to be a battle, with plenty of nervous moments. Vorobyov quipped: “You can avoid any nerves if you sit on the sofa and watch a soap opera.”

If the Russians play at full tilt, focusing on defence while maintaining their unselfish offensive creativity, they have to be favoured. However, Finland knows it can win even without big names if it’s a 110 percent team effort. (OK, make that 120 percent.) Get ready for a dramatic, fun, and intense semi-final.