BERN – There are no second chances anymore. Winners go to the semifinal, losers go home - simple as that. And it’s cruel, as Belarus, Finland, Latvia, and the Czech Republic can testify.
Team Canada beat Latvia 4-2 in its quarterfinal game that turned out to be just as difficult as coach Lindy Ruff expected. Latvia, with 15 players from Dinamo Riga - a team that finished 10th in the Kontinental League this season - was ready to pull an upset out of its sleeve.
“They're ready to pounce in the offensive zone while limiting the opportunities at the same time,” said Ruff prior to the game. “It's a one game do or die, use whatever cliché you'd like.”
Despite the pressures of the late rounds, Team Canada showed their class by taking a fairly comfortable win, even if Latvia got within a goal twice. Each time, the Canadians burst the Latvian bubble with a quick goal of their own. First, when Latvia scored shorthanded to make it 2-1 with 2:30 remaining in the second period, Steven Stamkos made it 3-1 Canada just 17 seconds later.
In the third, Latvia came within a goal again at 41:27, but less than two minutes later Matthew Lombardi gave Canada another two-goal cushion.
Latvian goaltender Edgars Masalskis had faced more rubber than any other goalie in the quarterfinals, seeing 189 shots before meeting up with Canada. Against the Canadians, Masalskis made more than 40 saves, keeping his save percentage well above .920.
“It was a good game,” said Latvian captain Karlis Skrastins. “It's just one game and we talked about not giving them any power play opportunities, they scored two on the power play. But I'm proud of the team.”
Ruff was also impressed by the heart and determination the underdog Latvians brought to the game
“They played hard tonight,” he said. “They put themselves in a position that they could possibly give us a run, with good goaltending. We couldn't put the game away in the second period, which always leaves a team around. Even a tough bounce might have put them back in, where they could have possibly tied the game.”
Might have. Possibly. But not on Thursday night.
ILYA TO RESCUE ILYA
Russia, the top-seeded team in Group E, faced Belarus, another team with a great goalie and tight defense. And when Belarus twice took the lead in the game anything seemed possible.
Tied at three going into the third period, Russian coach Vyacheslav Bykov made a change. He replaced Phoenix Coyotes goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov with Alexander Eremenko, a Team Russia mainstay in his fourth World Championship who plays for Salavat Yulayev Ufa in the KHL.
“Today wasn't Ilya's day and the whole team seemed nervous so we decided to let Alexander Eremenko play the third period,” Bykov said.
Eremenko made five saves in the period and another Ilya – Kovalchuk – scored the winner halfway through the frame.
“It was the first game of the playoff stage and I think that’s the toughest one,” said Team Russia defenseman Oleg Tverdovsky. “We were squeezing our sticks a little too tightly in the beginning and tried to get through their five-guy defense. Fortunately, we found a way to win.”
Tverdovsky hopes the nervousness will subside now that the team has passed the first hurdle.
“People always expect a lot of things from the Russian team, there's a lot of history behind the team,” he said. “Russia is always one of the favorites, but we try to keep the pressure under control.”
USA FINNISHED THE JOB
Last year, Finland beat the U.S. twice in the Worlds; once in the qualification round and then in the quarterfinal, both times the score was 3-2.
This year, the score was 3-2 again, but now for the U.S.
“We just put it together,” said Jason Blake. “There wasn't just one special thing that we did, we just came together as a team at the right time and won. It was an elimination game where you go home if you don't finish the job. We've had a great time here as a group of guys and we're not ready to go home.”
Despite goaltender Robert Esche having the worst save percentage in the tournament, coach Ron Wilson still had faith in him – and it paid off big time. Esche was the Americans’ first star, making 47 saves.
“We needed our goaltending to play excellent, he's struggled a bit early in the tournament, but tonight’s game was easily his best here,” Wilson said.
Esche downplayed his role in the win.
“Personally, I don't look at it too much,” he said. “We have a great team and I didn't want to let the guys down. As a goaltender, you don't always have to win a game, but you don't want to give it away, either. And that was the case tonight.”
The U.S. will meet Russia in one semifinal on Friday.
Sweden and the Czech Republic were another rematch from last year, but unlike the game between the U.S. and Finland, this one had the same ending as last year: Swedes onto the semifinal, the Czechs go home, Jaromir Jagr or not.
In an odd game - the teams totaled 25:39 in minutes played on power play - Sweden took a 2-0 lead and the Czechs got on the board when they were shorthanded by two men. But a comeback was not to be, as Kenny Jonsson sealed the deal with a wrist shot from the blueline to make it 3-1 for Sweden.
Jonas Gustavsson made 33 saves, and Mattias Weinhandl scored one and added one assist for Sweden.
They will meet Canada Friday.
“I don’t think it matters that they don’t know me or that I don’t know their forwards. It’ll be a fun game,” said Gustavsson, who’ll be facing Team Canada for the first time in his career.
The former NHL goaltender and Washington Capitals coach Glen Hanlon was back behind the Belarus bench for the fourth time in World Championship. Next season, Hanlon will move his family to Minsk as he doubles as the coach of the national team and Dinamo Minsk of the KHL.
According to Hanlon, Belarusian hockey is on the upswing.
“It’s thanks to all the money that has been poured in to hockey. Our president (Alexander Lukashenko) is getting closer every year to making the team as a player,” Hanlon joked, before continuing, “he's very supportive of our hockey program. We have more players playing hockey and have had some success in the under-18 and under-20 tournaments, but we have a long way to go. Our next step is to get even more players.”
Belarus is also making a bid to host the 2014 World Championship, to be awarded on May 8.
“There's a new arena, with everything in it, they're building hotels and working hard for the 2014 bid,” Hanlon said. “Everything they do is for that tournament. Maybe the last thing they could do is promise free beer for the media and then it will be a lock.”
As for his team’s success in the tournament - making the quarterfinal - Hanlon made a telling remark.
“When we lost our quarterfinal in Riga in 2006, everybody stood arm in arm after the quarterfinal game, a sign that we were satisfied with a job well done. Today, nobody stood arm in arm,” he said.
The IIHF congress is also expected to approve a motion to split the 2012 and 2013 tournaments between Sweden and Finland. Originally, the 2012 tournament was awarded to Finland and the 2013 event to Sweden.
THN's European correspondant Risto Pakarinen is at the World Championship in Switzerland and will be filing reports regularly throughout the tournament.
Risto Pakarinen is a Finnish freelance writer, based in Stockholm, Sweden who also writes for NHL.com and IIHF.com. When not writing about European hockey on THN, he's probably writing about hockey at ristopakarinen.com/hockey as Puckarinen. You can email him at email@example.com.
Go to THN's World Championship Central HERE.