QUEBEC CITY – It’s beginning to look a lot like 2007 for the Finnish team at the World Championship. As was the case last year, they defeated USA in overtime in a hard-fought quarterfinal and entered the semifinal hopelessly overmatched on paper against a powerful and favored Russian squad.
But the little country that could is intent on imposing the same result on this year’s tournament. Last year, the Finns defeated the Russians 2-1 in overtime in the semifinal. They face a Russian team Friday afternoon that, even without the suspended Ilya Kovalchuk, has a lineup that is far superior in terms of NHL talent.
It’s also a repeat of last year in the other semifinal as Canada takes on Sweden, a team for which 25 NHL players turned down the opportunity to play, but is playing perhaps the best all-round team game in the tournament
Here’s how each semifinal breaks down:
RUSSIA VS. FINLAND – 1 P.M. (EST)
The Finns are purposely putting themselves in an underdog role and for good reason. The Russian team is loaded with a depth of offensive talent the Finns can’t hope to match. But the Finnish team is always a relentless team in these tournaments and must take the game to the more skilled Russians if it hopes to move on to the final.
“It’s a David and Goliath type of story again, the same as it was last year,” said Finland coach Doug Shedden. “It’s almost got to be the perfect game to beat them. They’re so big, they’re so skilled, they skate well, they do everything so well.”
Shedden acknowledged the Finns will have to play with the physical edge that has become its hallmark. Finnish teams have long played the most rugged style of all European teams and it has served the country well in the past.
“We have to be in their space a little bit,” Shedden said. “They don’t like to be bothered. They like an easy game all the time because they’re so skilled. At the same time, if you get into penalty trouble, you might as well just pack your bags.”
Russia coach Slava Bykov said his team will have to show some resolve to work through the relentless checking and physical (possibly even nasty) game the Finns will present.
When asked how to get through that style, Bykov said, “With the qualities our players have – the stickhandling, good skating, good vision of the ice, speed and discipline. We hope to have a game plan that will allow us to get through the defense. It’s not easy, that’s clear. It’s hard to play against a team that defends very well.”
The key to victory for the Finns will be finding a way to stop the Capital Connection – Sergei Fedorov between Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin. The three have combined for 14 goals and 26 points in seven games so far in the tournament.
CANADA VS. SWEDEN – 5 P.M. (EST)
This semifinal represents everything that Canada and Sweden games usually are not. Under normal circumstances, Sweden is usually the team with the skill players and Canada almost always has a decided edge in goaltending. But that certainly won’t be the case when the two teams meet Friday.
The Swedes are sorely lacking NHL caliber talent up front, but they more than make up for that in goal where they have two-time Vezina Trophy finalist Henrik Lundqvist, a player who has an Olympic gold medal and an 11-2-4 record in World Championship play.
The Canadians counter with Pascal Leclaire, who has never played in an NHL playoff game and whose last significant international experience was a disastrous gold medal game in the 2002 World Junior Championship.
Advantage: Sweden (huge).
But while Sweden has some very good-to-decent offensive players in Nicklas Backstrom, Marcus Nilson and Robert Nilsson, Canada counters with offensive studs such as Dany Heatley (10-6-16 in seven games), Rick Nash (5-7-12) and Ryan Getzlaf (2-9-11), who make up Canada’s top line.
Even Canada’s support players have come up big in the tournament and it has received some fine offensive work on the back end from Mike Green (3-5-8) and Brent Burns (1-5-6, plus-13).
To tilt things even a little more, Canada has an added physical element to its game that it must fully exploit against Sweden.
“Our best players are big men,” said team captain Shane Doan. “They can create so much offensively by playing a physical game.”
Canada coach Ken Hitchcock said Lundqvist is the key, but also said the Swedish team has the advantage of familiarity and a very rigid and disciplined system.
“They just don’t beat themselves,” Hitchcock said. “They’re the best team I’ve seen without the puck. They give you nothing easy. They look like they’ve played together for years. They can break you down and that’s how they’ve gotten to where they are now.”
Ken Campbell is at the World Championship in Quebec and will be filing daily reports through to the final day. Read other news and notes from Friday at the world championship HERE.