Who’s got the edge for gold?
by Lucas Aykroyd|20 FEB 2022
Marko Anttila (#12) would love to burnish his legend by helping Finland win its first Olympic gold medal, but it'll be tough against the ROC team in the 2022 final in Beijing.
photo: Andrea Cardin / HHOF-IIHF Images
Twenty years ago, Alexei Zhamnov was wrapping up his media scrum in the mixed zone at Salt Lake City’s E Centre. It was the day before the 2002 U.S.-Russia Olympic semi-final. A reporter quipped: “Come on, Archie – talk some trash for us!” The star centre laughed and shook his head as he walked away: “No, no. Great team! Great team!”

Zhamnov, who will stand behind the ROC team’s bench at age 51 during the 2022 Olympic gold medal game, is once again facing a great team in Finland. However, instead of the bronze medal he settled for in Salt Lake City, the relatively inexperienced head coach is aiming to come home with gold, just as he did as a CIS team member in 1992 at his first of three Olympics in Albertville.

But it probably won’t be guns a-blazin’.

This ROC team, although favoured pre-Beijing with its array of KHL talent, hasn’t exactly evoked Zhamnov’s own silky playmaking or that ‘92 CIS team with its Soviet-style goal difference of 46-14. There’s also no comparison offensively to Oleg Znarok’s 2018 OAR team that won gold in PyeongChang by outscoring opponents 27-9.

In a spooky coincidence, despite having a very different roster due to NHL non-participation this year, ROC has the same goal difference as the 2014 Russian team that fell 3-1 to Finland in the apocalyptic Sochi quarter-final: 13-8 through five games.

Even though Zhamnov can deploy KHL scoring champs and returning 2018 gold medalists like captain Vadim Shipachyov (1+2=3) and Nikita Gusev (0+5=5), there’s no reason to believe this Beijing gold medal game will look anything like the 1998 semi-final versus Finland in Nagano, where Pavel Bure ran wild with five goals in a 7-4 romp.
Here, ROC is coming off a 2-1 shootout win over Sweden, while the Finns blanked Slovakia 2-0. A neutral observer like Swedish head coach Johan Garpenlov is well-placed to project what lies ahead.

“It’s going to be another tight, defensive game,” said Garpenlov. “Two big, strong teams that take care of their own end first and have some skilled players offensively. [Finland] can score goals too. I don’t think there will be many goals in the game, but it’s going to be a good final.”

Unless ROC surprises Finland with a couple of quick, early goals and forces coach Jukka Jalonen’s team to open up, there won’t be much room to skate in the neutral zone. With that said, the experienced Finns, who enjoy an Olympic-leading 20-7 goal difference thus far, realize that against an opponent like this, they can’t just sit back all night long.
“Defence is our strength,” said forward Sakari Manninen, who ranks second in Olympic scoring (4+3=7) behind Slovakia's Juraj Slafkovsky and got the winner in the semi-final. “We are ready with that. We know we can defend well. But also, we have to play with the puck more in the offensive zone, create penalties, get the opponents a little bit tired, and stuff like that.”

“We have to play a better game than we did [against Slovakia] to win the gold medal,” added Marko Anttila. The towering “Morko” knows whereof he speaks. When the Finns won the 2019 IIHF World Championship in Bratislava, their biggest playoff upset was the 1-0 semi-final win over the Russians, who brought an IIHF Hall of Fame-ready roster featuring Alexander Ovechkin, Yevgeni Malkin, and Nikita Kucherov. It was Anttila who surprised goalie Andrei Vasilevski with the second-period winner.

Now on an even bigger stage, the Finns have a chance to succeed where their 2006 Olympic squad barely fell short with a 3-2 loss to Sweden in the Turin final.

“It would be huge,” said Finnish goalie Harri Sateri. “It’s the Olympics – one of the biggest tournaments you can win.”

Sateri, the starter for Sibir Novosibirsk, knows his KHL-trained opponents well. The former Florida Panther has stood tall with a tournament-best 96.5 save percentage and a sparkling 1.00 GAA.
Of course, “tall” is a relative term next to ROC starter Ivan Fedotov, who is just two centimetres shorter than 2018 OAR gold-medal goalie Vasili Koshechkin. Fedotov, whom Shipachyov dubs a “beauty,” has been no slouch himself in Beijing (94.4 save percentage, 1.53 GAA) in five consecutive starts. The CSKA Moskva veteran’s two shutouts lead the tournament.

If the Finns want to get to Fedotov, now would be an optimal time for their power play to ignite again. He’s allowed a tournament-high five PP goals, including four in the 6-5 overtime loss to Czechia.

Although Finland’s power play conversion rate (30.7 percent) easily outstrips ROC’s (12.5 percent), Jalonen’s crew haven’t scored with the man advantage since Iiro Pakarinen got the first of his two third-period goals in the 4-3 overtime win over Sweden in the Group C finale.
Still, on balance, Suomi’s chances of winning its first gold medal in Olympic history look promising. Arguably, they’ve got the edge.

No nation punches above its weight with defensive play and teamwork like Finland does. Right now, they have Manninen and his Salavat Yulayev Ufa partner Teemu Hartikainen (2+5=7) cuing the offence. Unlike in PyeongChang, the Russian squad lacks an obvious triggerman like Kirill Kaprizov or now-GM Ilya Kovalchuk, who tied for the 2018 tournament goals lead (five).

Even in terms of offence from the blue line, Finland’s Mikko Lehtonen (1+3=4) and Sami Vatanen (0+3=3) haven’t suffered in comparison to Nikita Nesterov (2+1=3) or Vyacheslav Voinov (1+1=2).

In fairness, morale is high on both sides. These rivals came to Beijing expecting rather than hoping to play for gold, and now the moment is at hand.

“I’m definitely happy,” said Finland’s Harri Pesonen. “What a great opportunity for us to play for the brightest medal! It’s pretty cool.”

“We’ve been building throughout the tournament,” said ROC’s Damir Sharipzyanov. “It was a slow start, not a lot of goals, but we are building, and I like where we are going.”

However, a coach’s job is to plan and worry. Zhamnov knows he’s got to make sure his team is physically and mentally ready to match what Jalonen’s men will bring. This final will likely be decided by a mistake or two.

Reflecting on the semi-final shootout win over Slovakia on youngster Arseni Gritsyuk’s winner, Zhamnov said: “We left all our nerves out on the ice. We gave everything to win. It means a lot to these players to be going to a second Olympic final in a row. Now our task is to get ready for Finland. Our biggest worry is fatigue, not emotion.”

Fortunately, there is no better shot of adrenaline than competing for an Olympic gold medal. And fans will be watching with bated breath, from Beijing to Moscow to Helsinki.