It’s Russia vs Finland in a repeat of last season’s semi-final match-up – and if this year’s World Championship failed to capture the public’s imagination in Stockholm, Zinetula Bilyaletdinov and his men can expect a livelier atmosphere in Helsinki.
Visitors to the Finnish capital barely have time to get out of the train station before the tournament hits them between the eyes: multi-storey posters hail the “Northern Stars of Ice Hockey” and call on the hosts to “Break the Spell”. The spell in question, of course, is the fabled “home-ice curse” of hockey World Championships: not since the Big Red Machine hoisted the Soviet flag over the 1986 edition in Moscow has a host nation taken gold at this tournament. That quarter-century of local angst has seen some near misses – think of Canada letting slip a big lead to lose to Russia in 2008 – but the Finns are still dreaming of a repeat of last year’s win.
The action has brought Helsinki to halt, at least when the local Lions take to the ice. From city-center restaurants kitting out their staff in national team jerseys to hard rock dive bars turning off the music when the puck is dropped, it seems everybody wants a piece of the action. And a goal-shy group phase which saw the hosts lose to both Canada and the USA has quickly been forgotten following Jesse Joensuu’s last-gasp 3-2 goal to sink the Americans in Thursday’s quarter-final.
Meanwhile, KHL fans will see plenty of familiar faces on both sides when Saturday’s game gets underway at 3:30 pm Moscow Time. Twelve of the Finnish roster currently ply their trade in the competition, turning for clubs from Moscow to Khabarovsk. That has prompted a growing enthusiasm for the KHL in Russia’s Nordic neighbor, even though most local experts feel it is unlikely that the likes of Jokerit or Lahti Pelicans will considering quitting the SM Liiga any time soon. Even without a Finnish team in the competition, though, such is the interest in Russian hockey that the country’s leading newspaper, Helsingins Sanomat, even sent a sports reporter to Moscow to cover this year’s Gagarin Cup final. He was eagerly following the progress of Avangard coach Raimo Summanen, and anxious for the latest news of Dynamo’s Leo Komarov and Avangard’s Anssi Salmela, both of whom have featured in the World Championship.
Salmela, meanwhile, faces an intriguing battle against his clubmates Alexander Popov and Alexander Perezhogin. The pair were in fine form for Avangard in the play-offs, and have carried that onto the World stage, sharing 17 points between them in Finland’s eight games so far. But, for the most part the Finns have relied on tight defense: starting with goaltender Petri Vehanen – a star for Ak Bars Kazan in recent seasons – who has given up just four goals in his five games between the pipes, team Finland has relied on being tough to beat and grinding out just enough goals to get by. It’s been effective in closing out tight games, such as the nervy 1-0 over Slovakia on the opening weekend, but when it has gone astray the consequences have been spectacular, as in the 0-5 group stage drubbing from the USA.
So for Russia it’s a case of making sure it can impose its attacking game on the Finns, and gaining revenge for last year’s final four failure – and extending the curse of the hosts for at least one more year.