It all comes down to this.
After 11 days and 30 games, the men's Olympic hockey tournament is finally set to decide a winner in Beijing. With no NHLers, Finland and the Russian Olympic Committee secured spots in the championship game, set for 11:10 PM ET Saturday evening/12:10 Sunday local time.
Without the world's top players, there never was a true clear-cut favorite. Russia, the defending champions, were the logical No. 1 choice, but struggled to score with just 13 goals in five games - five of them coming in the game against the Czechs.
How They Got Here
Before the tournament, Finland and the ROC were two of the clear favorites for gold. Between the strong depth each nation has and the goaltending they've gotten from the get-go, it's no surprise the champions from Group B and C are the ones going for gold in Beijing.
Finland won all three of its round robin games, including a come-from-behind overtime win over Sweden that saw the Finns erase a 3-0 deficit in the third period. Finland had a pair of big wins against Slovakia (6-2) and Switzerland (5-1), and their win against Sweden (4-3, OT) proved they can battle adversity. If Finland can stay out of the box, they're tough to beat with a plus-13 goal-differential.
Russia hasn't won a game by more than two goals and have an overall goal-differential of plus-five. But for the most part, Russia has been one of the toughest teams to play against, as expected. Russia has allowed one or fewer goals in four of the five games they've played, so Finland is going to have to get creative to get past a blueline and goalie combo that's forcing teams to the perimeter.
Tale of the Tape
These teams are definitely not strangers.
Making up half of the Euro Hockey Tour field, the two teams finished 1-2 in the Channel One Cup in December, with Finland winning the match between them and the title to go with it. Finland came second at the Karjala Cup in November, with Russia coming third with just one win.
While the rosters aren't identical, both events were used as evaluations for the Olympics, so there was some heavy overlap. One of FInland's better players in Beijing, Miro Aaltonen, is tied for the overall EHT point lead with five points, with Nikita Gusev leading Russia with four. Since Jan. 1, 2021, Finland has a 3-1 advantage in men's national team games and is coming off a silver medal at the World Championship last June.
Players to Watch
Ivan Fedotov, G
Standing at 6-foot-8, Fedotov has been one of the best goaltenders throughout the tournament with a .944 save percentage after playing every game in the tournament. Had it not been for Russia's collapse against the Czechs, which was partly due to a poor penalty kill, Fedotov's numbers would be much better. Still, as Russia has struggled to score at 5-on-5, Fedotov has needed to be great, and he's kept the ROC in charge.
Nikita Gusev, F
After scoring four goals and a tournament-leading 12 points in South Korea four years ago en route to gold and the top forward award, Gusev has been a bit quieter by his standards with zero goals and five assists. But still, he's been one of the team's most important players as expected and scored a big goal in the shootout to keep its hopes alive against Sweden. If Russia wins the championship, you can bet Gusev will have something to do with the winning goal.
Anton Slepyshev, F
Scoring has been a bit of a sore spot for Russia, with just three players scoring two goals. But for the most part, Slepyshev has been an integral piece of Russia's attack, scoring the opening goal of the tournament and the one that forced Sweden to chase most of the semifinal game. Russia will need a good game out of Slepyshev if they want to win because they can use all the scoring options they can get.
Sakari Manninen, F
Has there been a more valuable forward than Manninen? He enters the tournament in a three-way tie for first in scoring that includes teammate Teemu Hartikainen, with his four goals sitting second behind Lucas Wallmark. Manninen has gotten points in all but one game, a Finland's 3-1 win over Latvia, and started it out with a hat-trick against Slovakia. Since then, he's been a steady force on Finland's attack and needs to remain hot if Finland is to win gold.
Teemu Hartikainen, F
Speaking of offense, Hartikainen has been electric with seven points and has seemingly made just about everyone around him better. To say it's been Hartikainen's best men's national team tournament is an understatement: Hartikainen has just 10 points in 33 Euro Hockey Tour games and had just one assist back in 2018. His inconsistent play is part of what chased him out of an NHL deal nearly a decade ago, but he's firing on all cylinders in Beijing.
Mikko Lehtonen, D
If you're going to beat Fedotov, you need your defense starting the scoring chance by getting the puck on net and getting your fowards to bang in the rebound. Fortunately, Lehtonen is good at getting the puck on net, and leads all defensemen competing in the final with four points in five games. Capable of leading the power play, Lehtonen has emerged as one of the best offensive defensemen in the KHL over the past few years and his second Olympic tournament has been a big success.