QUEBEC CITY – The conference finals in the NHL have not exactly been off the charts in terms of being compelling, but the same shouldn’t be the case for the gold medal game of the World Championship.
In fact, if Sunday’s matchup between Canada and Russia can’t add some luster to this tournament, then the International Ice Hockey Federation should seriously consider skipping the event altogether because there really is no hope.
This year’s championship game has everything – the two best teams in the tournament, the most storied rivalry in international hockey history and a bevy of young NHL superstars who are delivering in this tournament what they were unable to for their teams during the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Both teams are supremely skilled and have the ability to impose their will on a game. The Russians have some of the most explosive players in the NHL and the Canadians have a top line of Ryan Getzlaf between Dany Heatley and Rick Nash that might be the best trio playing hockey on the planet right now – including teams currently in the NHL playoffs.
“As a fan, you’ve just got to love watching those guys,” Canadian captain Shane Doan said after Canada defeated Sweden 5-4 in the semifinal. “It’s not too often you see three guys that big, that talented and that skilled together and they tend to make it happen.”
Both teams also enter the final riding a wave of confidence you don’t often see. The Russians have not given up a goal in their past two games and have displayed a penchant for capitalizing on their opponents’ mistakes. Canada, on the other hand, easily overcame its first real adversity of the tournament and got a powerful impact from Getzlaf and Nash in particular, who blew past bumbling Swedish defensemen as though they were practice pylons.
“We have an aura around us,” Getzlaf said. “We know we’re going to get it.”
That’s exactly what happened when Canada went down 2-1, marking the first time it has trailed so far in this tournament. A little more than a minute after Niclas Wallin made it 2-1 for Sweden in the second period, Getzlaf blew past Swedish defenseman Magnus Johansson to tie the score. Then, just over a minute after the score was tied 3-3 in the second, Nash put Canada ahead with a wonderful solo effort to beat Wallin and score a goal. Mike Green notched the winner when he carried the puck end-to-end and scored after taking advantage of a Swedish defenseman falling down on the play.
But the Russians were just as impressive in their 4-0 victory over Finland in the first semifinal. The Russians essentially stuck a dagger in the Finns when they jumped on a turnover and scored a goal after a dizzying array of passes involving the Capital Punishment line of Sergei Fedorov, Alexander Semin and Alex Ovechkin.
“That’s Russian hockey,” Ovechkin said with a grin.
Canadian coach Ken Hitchcock said the lethal Russian counterattack is something his team will have to constantly be cognizant of in the final.
“They make you pay for just a little mistake,” Hitchcock said. “If you give up a 3-on-2 against the Russians, it’s going to be a great scoring opportunity. We have to check as well as we have ever checked in our lives, but we’re capable of doing it.”
The Canadians will be able to avoid that if they play a strong puck possession game. With their size, it will be key for Canada to work the puck down low the way it has recently, both in terms of creating scoring chances and keeping the puck off the sticks of the talented Russians as much as possible.
Ken Campbell is at the World Championship in Quebec and will be filing daily reports through to the final day.