Friday, 8 May 2009

Old Rivals

The 2009 IIHF World Hockey Championships will write another page into the history book on Sunday when Canada and Russia clash for the gold medal. These two hockey powers have 24 gold medal victories each, meaning that whoever wins on Sunday will be the undisputed leader at this tournament. Of course, Ilya Kovalchuk's overtime goal last season against the Canadians should still be fresh in most of the Canadian squad's side, so this game has all sorts of intrigue written on it. Let's take a look at these two teams and how each squad made it to the gold medal game. One team wants revenge while the other wants to continue to build momentum towards the 2010 Winter Olympics. Here we go!

Through the qualifying round, both teams added to an impressive preliminary record. Canada defeated Belarus by a 6-1 score on April 24, defeated Slovakia 7-3 on April 28, defeated the Czech Republic 5-1 on April 30, defeated Norway 5-1 on May 4, and ended the qualifying round with a 4-3 shootout loss at the hands of the Finns. Canada's 4-0-0-1 record in Group F gave them first place with 13 points as they outscored their opponents 26-10.

Russia began the qualifying round by defeating France 7-2 on April 26. From there, they defeated Switzerland 4-2 on April 28, defeated Sweden 6-5 in overtime on April 30, defeated the USA 4-1 on May 2, and finished the round by defeating Latvia by a 6-1 score. Russia finished first in Group E on the strength of their 4-1-0-0 record for 14 points while outscoring their opponents 27-11.

Both teams entered the playoff round with some good momentum. Canada opened the playoff round with a 4-2 victory over the plucky Latvians. While the Canadians looked a little lethargic, they still played well enough to move on. In the next game, they met Sweden. Sweden boasts a number of NHL players and a solid, young goaltender in Jonas Gustavsson who has been billed as the best young goalie not in the NHL right now. The Canadians, playing some of their best hockey, got a great performance out of Edmonton Oilers' goaltender Dwayne Roloson, and Buffalo Sabres' forward Derek Roy scored two goals to lead Canada to a 3-1 win.

"Canada's a tough team to come back against," admitted Swedish forward Magnus Johansson to IIHF reporter Andrew Podnieks. "They grabbed the early lead and dominated, especially in the second period."

With the win, Canada earned a berth in the final against long-time rival Russia. The Russians worked through the playoff round by defeating Belarus 4-3 in their opening game. Despite only having one NHL star - Maple Leafs' forward Mikhail Grabovsky - the Belarussians nearly did the impossible in knocking off the Russians. Perhaps this game was a wake-up call for the Russian squad as the Russians ran into a determined American team. However, a late goal by Konstantin Gorovikov put the Russians into the final with a 3-2 victory.

Honestly, the Russians haven't looked all that strong against the Americans or Belarussians. However, the final score is all that matters, and they are in the gold medal game. This will be the first opportunity for the Russians to win back-to-back gold medals since 1989 and 1990 when they were still under the USSR title.

So that leaves us with the two "powers": Canada vs. Russia.

Russia is led by Atlanta Thrashers' forward Ilya Kovalchuk for the second straight year. Kovalchuk has five goals and nine assists to lead his team. Right behind him is former NHLer and current KHL star Alexander Radulov. Radulov has three goals and six assists for nine points. In net, Phoenix Coyotes' goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov is leading the way with a 2.27 GAA, .919 save percentage, and posting a record of 6-0 with one shutout.

Canada, on the other hand, is led by Tampa Bay Lightning forward Martin St. Louis. St. Louis has really looked good, posting four goals and eleven assists. Right behind him are Lightning forward Steven Stamkos, who has seven goals - five on the powerplay - and four assists, and Nashville Predators' defenceman Shea Weber, who has four goals and seven assists. The most impressive statistic is that there is no Canadian player with a minus-rating. In net, the duties have been split in the eight games evenly. Roloson has posted a 3-1 record with a 2.20 GAA and a .936 save percentage. St. Louis Blues' goalie Chris Mason has been even better, posting a 4-0 record with a 1.00 GAA, a .965 save percentage, and one shutout.

Based on the numbers alone, it appears the Canadians might take the gold medal in a blowout, but if there is anything that I have learned watching this rivalry over the years, it's that the Russians get up for playing against Canada. I expect both teams to come out flying. Canada will most likely be the more physical team, and that could overwhelm the Russians. The Russians, on the other hand, use their speed and passing well, and will try to exploit the Canadian defence.

Just to note, here are the final standings of the tournament thus far:

Gold - TBD
Silver - TBD
Bronze - TBD
4th - TBD
5th - Finland
6th - Czech Republic
7th - Latvia
8th - Belarus
9th - Switzerland
10th - Slovakia
11th - Norway
12th - France
13th - Denmark
14th - Austria
15th - Germany
16th - Hungary

Yeah, Germany at 15th is insane. I'm not sure what happened there. Switzerland, after making huge strides in the last few years, finds themselves behind both Latvia and Belarus. Slovakia is a disappointing 10th again. Is there any hope for them getting better?

The gold medal game goes live on TSN at 2pm ET. Before that, TSN will broadcast the Sweden-USA bronze medal game at 10am ET. All of this takes place on Sunday!


Until then, keep your sticks on the ice!

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