And that’s exactly how both Finland and Russia played right from the get-go. Long spells of furious action and puck movement by team Finland in Russia’s zone had the ladies in red somewhat running around in desperation. But when Russia attacked, it was goaltender Kiia Lahtinen who had her hands full. By the game’s eighth minute, that crash-the-net style implemented by the Russians paid off when Kristina Glukhareva then wristed a shot to the stick side and into the net after a solid feed from Varvara Boriskova from behind the net.
A Russian penalty for hooking ensued shortly thereafter, but try as they might, the Finns could not get a puck by goaltender Anna Alpatova, who seemed to be moving from left to right and back again as if on battery-control.
The battling thereafter continued to be relentless and little symbolized that more than when Russian assistant captain Polina Luchnikova looked to dance and hop by Finnish defender Krista Parkkonen, who then just ploughed right through the head-smaller Luchnikova. If there was any doubt what was on the line between these two neighbours, it had subsided.
In the 17th minute of play, right off a face-off, Anastasia Petina then doubled Russia’s lead with a seeing-eye shot through a crowd that hit Lahtinen and somehow slid by and then behind her. Judging by the suddenly frozen Finnish bench, it was the type of goal that needed an answer. A few minutes later, another Russian forward was on the ice for a prolonged period of time right in front of her own bench after a collision with the Finnish blueliner.
The second period started off 2-0 and the Finns came out of the starting gate looking to change the tide right off the bat, but nothing was cooking. Back and forth, the opponents took it to each other and a mixture of solid goaltending and a plethora of blocked shots brought about a match of stalemate.
Well, that is until Russia slipped into the Finnish zone on a 2-on-1 in the 12th minute of play. The original pass by a captain Ilona Markova was deftly blocked off, but she didn’t give up on the play and ended up threading the needle to linemate Glukhareva, who wristed in her second of the game. With the Russians up 3-0, it looked like Finland’s sails were deflated.
The wear and tear had taken its toll and Russia used another odd-woman attack to make it 5-1 in the 55th minute thanks to a pretty goal by Anna Sviridova, who finished off a pass from Yelizaveta Shkalyova, her second assist of the period. The flood gates were open and Glukhareva then completed the hattrick in the 60th minute of play on a mini-breakaway.
“The three goals are wonderful and a special moment,” the forward explained. “But my teammates gave me perfect passes every time. They made those goals possible.”
Seconds later, the Russians stormed the ice to congratulate their goaltender, who once again proved to all in attendance that her dominating tournament stats, having allowed just six goals against on 111 shots, were not merely a matter of happenstance.
Once the award ceremony was concluded and captain Markova was given the award for gaining bronze, well, the young group of Russian players cheered as if it was gold. Moreover, it was a symbol of how far the program has come in such a short period of time.
“Oh goodness, we’re overwhelmed with emotion. This feels like the best day of our lives,” said Markova, full of smiles. “We just worked so hard over time. Preparing for this tournament was the most work I’ve ever had to put into something. And now it paid off. Now we see what we have from all that work.”
And if you ask the coaching staff, this medal is only the beginning of the work to come.
“We’re feeling so much emotion and happiness now,” a cheerful Yevgeni Sherbakov, assistant coach of Team Russia, declared. “But more hard work is on the way. We’re getting better and better and that’s exactly our goal. This bronze is a wonderful step, but that leaves two more valuable medals left to win.”
For Finland, this loss was as disappointing as anyone could expect. The culmination of their work was a result they may not have allowed at another juncture in the tournament. Finnish coach Mira Kuisma couldn’t help but be distraught and sober in her analysis, “I think you can say Russia had more energy for this game. This certainly wasn’t our best game of the tournament. We’ve been better. And the result today reflects who was better. You’ve got to be your best when it matters most.”
“Sure, it’s tough to play six games in eight days,” she continued. “It’s easier, for example, to play with a fourth line, something we couldn’t do today. Some of our key players had added minutes yesterday and today. It’s hard to keep that level up on an almost daily basis. But Team Russia had to do that too, so it’s not a situation special to us.”
Finland’s top defensive pairing, consisting of captain Nelli Laitinen and Sanni Rantala, were two of those players whose ice time had increased as the games got more important.
“We just weren’t as good as we can be,” stated Rantala, who led Finland in tournament scoring with seven points. “Russia was just so much better today at doing all the little things right. And the game was so fast and physical. Coming off the loss to Canada yesterday, also a fast and physical game, what the Russians did was too much.”
“You know, I don’t think it was just a question of too many games in a few days or missing energy,” added captain Laitinen, who chipped in with three goals in the six games. “Team Russia just had a team spirit that we didn’t necessarily have. They played as a tight group and just simply wanted it more.”
For Russia, this is their third medal in this tournament, all bronze, and their first since 2017. But if anything, this tournament certainly showed that the program has its eyes set on competing with the USA and Canada in the not so distant future. Still, it marked the first time in three years that a Nordic nation didn’t medal at this event – one that just seems to be getting more and more competitive.