Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the fifth leg of this year's Euro Hockey Tour. The top four European nations are the last four teams standing at the IIHF World Championships, after Russia took out Canada with a third period comeback to win 2-1 yesterday, while the Czechs, Swedes, and Finns all won their games as expected. These teams are all very familiar with each other, as various incarnations of their national teams play in tournaments in each other's country throughout the year during the international breaks, before ending with the World Championships. The Russians came out on top this past year, although the Czechs won the final leg of the tour on home ice in Brno, just before the Worlds opened. Does any of that matter now? No, but there are no secrets between these teams, even with the NHLers taking leading roles here.
The defending champions are undefeated so far, have the support of the Bratislava crowd, and got to relive the glory days in their quarterfinal win over the USA, with 39 year old Jaromir Jagr dazzling the fans with a hat trick. The top line of Roman Cervenka, Tomas Plekanec and Jagr seems almost impossible, but they haven't played Sweden yet. Viktor Fästh has been the tournament's top goaltender to date, and this is the first time the Czechs have ever seen him, as he wasn't used in any of the Euro Hockey Tour tournaments at all. Patrik Berglund has been starring for Sweden in the goal scoring department, but its been a lot of unheralded players chipping in that have pushed Sweden into the semifinals for the 11th straight year. David Petrasek has been a rock on the blueline, while Niklas Persson, Robert Nilsson and Martin Thornberg have made big contributions up front.
The Czechs right now look like a behemoth. The Swedes are a strong team, but they're going to need Fasth to play like he's back in Stockholm taking on HV71 in order to pull this off. Which means its entirely possible. Still, I'm expecting the Czechs to come out on top here.
These teams just played yesterday, and this is a quick turnaround for them, especially Russia who had a more emotionally and physically demanding game against Canada than Finland did against Norway, so we'll see if fatigue sets in on their end. The good news for Russia is that coach Vyacheslav Bykov likes to roll his lines, so no one player was overexerted, with only defender Ilya Nikulin clocking in at over 20 minutes against Canada (21:54). Meanwhile, Finland built a three goal lead in the second period and were able to keep their stars from playing too much. Mikko Koivu has been one of the busiest forwards during the entire tournament, but he only played 18:07 yesterday so he should be good to go, likely drawing an assignment against either Alex Ovechkin's line or Alexander Radulov and Ilya Kovalchuk's line. In goal, Konstantin Barulin was the star for Russia against Canada, and will likely have to be sharp early as Finland will look to get the early jump. Its doubtful that Jarkko Immonen will be able to score another one timer PP goal like he did twice against Norway, but Finland has enough other weapons in Tuomo Ruutu, Koivu, and Mikael Granlund to keep the pressure on Barulin. Petri Vehanen also had a busy game against Norway, who came in waves against Finland in the quarterfinal. Vehanen is familiar to a lot of the Russian shooters, having been the goalie for Ak Bars Kazan this past year.
This is a tough call to make. I picked Canada to beat Russia and go on to the final, but now that Russia is here I'm quite unsure which way to go. Finland beat Russia earlier in the tournament, but it took a shootout to do so. Finland has never beat Russia twice in the same tournament. The rest factor favours Finland, but I'm just not sure about Finland's offensive punch. And if the Russians win, they'll maintain the top spot in the world ranking. But what the heck: I'm taking Finland here.
Stick around all day in the comments section for discussion and updates of the games.