Previewing the semi-finals
by Lucas Aykroyd|17 FEB 2022
The Finns were too much for Slovakia in a 6-2 tournament-opening win, but the Slovaks hope to turn the tables in the 2022 Olympic semi-finals in Beijing.
photo: Matt Zambonin / HHOF-IIHF Images
When you analyze the 2022 Olympic men’s hockey tournament in Beijing, the final four teams represent a bit of an anomaly. Case in point: this is the first time since Turin 2006 that neither Canada nor the U.S. has advanced to the semi-finals.

To see the ROC team, Finland, or Sweden make it this far raises few eyebrows. However, Slovakia was far from a lock in anyone’s mind. In fact, the Slovaks had to win an Olympic qualification tournament in Bratislava back in August, and even though the hosts prevailed in three straight games, two were 2-1 squeakers over Austria and Belarus.

So what can we expect from Friday’s semi-finals at the National Indoor Stadium in this unprecedented atmosphere? Let’s take a closer look.

Finland – Slovakia (12:10)

At last year’s IIHF World Championship in Latvia, Finland almost earned its second straight gold medal, but fell 3-2 to Canada in overtime. The Power Rankings jokingly referred to coach Jukka Jalonen’s team as “The Big Blue Machine.” The undefeated Finns, loaded with KHLers, have also lived up to that description in Beijing.

Their 18-7 goal difference is tops among all remaining playoff teams. Supporting the puck well and playing tight defence as five-man units, they’ve gotten a balanced attack. Six different skaters have scored two or more goals.

As hoped, Finland’s Salavat Yulayev Ufa trio of Sakari Manninen, Teemu Hartikainen, and Markus Granlund has been particularly dynamic, combining for 13 points. Towering, talismanic captain Marko “Morko” Anttila is heating up at the right time, notching a big second-period goal in the 5-1 quarter-final win over Switzerland.
That said, while Finnish starting goalie Harri Sateri has been impeccably reliable (95.4 save percentage, 1.33 GAA), Slovakia’s Patrik Rybar has put up numbers that are slightly superior (95.6 save percentage, 1.05 GAA) behind a weaker defence.

The Finns know they can’t take anything for granted, even though they’ve defeated the Slovaks 10 straight times at the Worlds – including four shutouts in the last six games – dating back to 2008,

“It’s a big chance for us and it’s gonna be a tough battle,” said Anttila. “They’ve got some dangerous forwards and they’ve improved all tournament, We’ll have to play our best game so far, but I think we’re ready for that.”

The Cinderella Slovaks gave their fans a huge quarter-final thrill when captain Marek Hrivik scored with 44 seconds left to knot the score against the favoured Americans. Peter Cehlarik – named Best Forward at the 2021 Worlds – tallied the lone shootout goal to cap off a 3-2 upset.
The crucial question now is, “Just how much have these underdogs improved since getting pounded 6-2 by the Finns in their opener?”

Sniper Juraj Slafkovsky – an absolute revelation at age 17 – scored both Slovak goals in that tilt and is now tied with Sweden’s Lucas Wallmark for the tournament lead (five). Comparisons to Alexander Ovechkin and Auston Matthews are flowing like the Yangtze River.

Yet objectively, how fair is it to ask a kid who was in kindergarten when Finland beat Slovakia 5-3 in the 2010 Olympic bronze medal game – their only previous Winter Games meeting – to keep doing the heavy lifting on offence? Some less-celebrated Slovak forwards need to chip in as well to upset the Finns. And despite Rybar’s heroics, his team has given up twice as many goals as Suomi (14).

The Slovaks finished 11th at their last two Olympics and haven’t given their fans a medal to celebrate since claiming silver at the 2012 Worlds in Helsinki. They’re going to play desperate hockey.

“We don’t like to play safe or careful,” said head coach Craig Ramsay, who was an assistant to John Tortorella when Tampa Bay won the 2004 Stanley Cup. “We have to go out and attack and bang away and find ways to win. My Stanley Cup ring says, ‘Safe is death,’ and I believe it. It’s about going out and trying to win, and not being careful and safe, but let’s win this thing. Start to finish, do the best you can and leave nothing in the tank.”

The Finns, however, remain the clear favourites to make the Olympic final for the first and only time since falling 3-2 to Sweden in 2006. Neither of these two semi-finalists, incidentally, has ever won Olympic gold, which ramps up the excitement for their passionate fans.

ROC – Sweden (21:10)

When Swedish captain Anton Lander praises the ROC team, the 30-year-old former Edmonton Oiler is speaking from a place of knowledge. Now with Switzerland’s EV Zug, Lander spent the previous four seasons in the KHL with Ak Bars Kazan and Lokomotiv Yaroslavl.

“They have a really good team, and in this tournament they’ve shown really good defence,” said Lander after Sweden made the semis with a 2-0 shutout versus Canada. “They play a good system, tight team, and I think it’s going to be a good semi-final.”
Of course, Tre Kronor has also shown its ability to clamp down defensively in Beijing. Like ROC and Finland, coach Johan Garpenlov’s squad has allowed just seven goals in four games. Their one major lapse was blowing a 3-0 lead against the Finns and losing 4-3 in overtime to wrap up Group C.

Meanwhile, the Russian players know they still have much work to do if they’re to emulate the OAR (Olympic Athletes from Russia) squad that won gold in PyeongChang four years ago.

“It will be tough,” said top defenceman Nikita Nesterov, who scored the second-period winner when ROC beat Denmark 3-1 in the quarter-finals. “Every team is good. These will be close matches.”

The smart money says we’ll see a fine goaltending duel between ROC starter Ivan Fedotov (93.5 save percentage, 1.72 GAA), who leads these Olympics with two shutouts, and Sweden’s Lars Johansson (94.8 save percentage, 1.00 GAA), who’s spent five years in the KHL, including a 2019 Gagarin Cup triumph with CSKA Moskva.

“It’s a very skilled team,” said Johansson, a 34-year-old Olympic debutant. “I think they’ve got a good balance between hard-working guys and goal-scorers, so they’re a very tough team to beat.”

Goal-scoring could be the dividing line. This Swedish roster isn’t stacked with latter-day answers to Hakan Loob and Markus Naslund. Out of their 12 goals, three are by Lander and five are by Lucas Wallmark – something few foresaw when the 26-year-old CSKA Moskva forward entered these Games with eight goals in 31 KHL games in 2021-22.

Asked if scoring the third-period winner against Canada constituted the biggest goal of his career, Wallmark said: “I don’t know, it’s up there. Hopefully I can score some bigger ones in the future.”
Frankly, there’s no time like the semi-finals, because this ROC team has some elite talents that can sting you at any time.

Is coach Alexei Zhamnov’s roster on par offensively with, say, the 2019 World Championship squad featuring names like Alexander Ovechkin, Yevgeni Malkin, and Nikita Kucherov? Clearly not. And even the 2019 team fell 1-0 to Finland in the semi-finals.

However, Vadim Shipachyov, the captain and current KHL scoring leader (67 points), and Nikita Gusev, whose led the PyeongChang derby (12 points) and stole the show in the 4-3 overtime win over Germany, both had two-point games versus Denmark. If this trend continues, it’s great news for Russian supporters. No one on the 2022 Swedish roster can match that duo’s crafty playmaking when they’re on.

If the ROC players stay patient, deliver another committed defensive effort, and capitalize on their chances, they will likely play for gold. If the Swedes can frustrate the Russians long enough and get some more offensive magic from unlikely sources, they could advance to their first Olympic final since losing 3-0 to Canada in Sochi in 2014. Tre Kronor boasts two Olympic gold medals (1994, 2006).

Get ready for what could be a very intriguing chess match.