The goalie and the goal getter: Czech netminder Pavel Francouz is second in save percentage among starts (94%), Olympic Athlete of Russia Ilya Kovalchuk is among the top goal scorers with four markers, as many as his teammate Kirill Kaprizov. Photos: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
Strong KHL accent in OWG semi-final
The Czechs hope Francouz can frustrate; the Olympic Athletes from Russia look to offensive power to reach the Olympic final. Let the battle commence!
When the Olympic Athletes from Russia take on the Czech Republic in today’s Olympic semi-final, it will be something of a meeting of old friends. One team is derived entirely from the KHL, the other features many players with experience in the Russian championship.
The teams also meet regularly in the Euro Hockey Tour, where the Russians, typically, have had the edge: the Czechs are on a six-game losing streak against Oleg Znarok’s team, but can point to a shock 3-0 victory on the opening day of the 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Moscow as evidence that they can spring a surprise again here.
The key battle could be the offence of SKA St. Petersburg against the goalie of Traktor Chelyabinsk. Pavel Francouz, the Czech netminder, has been in inspired form this season. Michal Jordan, another KHLer from Amur Khabarovsk, reckons he can be the secret weapon for his team – especially after securing shootout wins over Canada and the USA.
“The Russians have a really strong attack,” he said. “It’s basically a team from two clubs, SKA, and CSKA, so that really helps their teamwork. But if we can keep them from scoring and drag the game to a shootout, we have Pavel. He is stopping everything, and that gives us a chance to win.”
Admittedly, Traktor’s results against SKA in the KHL this season don’t make impressive reading. The Petersburg team won 5-0 at home in September, although Vasili Demchenko started that game in goal for Traktor and was replaced by Francouz when the score was already 0-4. It was a similar story when the teams met in Chelyabinsk in January: Demchenko started, but with the score 0-3 after 12 minutes, Francouz came in for the rest of an eventual 2-6 loss. Nikita Gusev, among his opponents in the semi-final, got one of the three goals that SKA scored on Francouz in that game.
As for the Czechs’ dismal recent run against the Russians, Jordan insists that every sequence must come to an end.
Another Amur man, Jan Kolar, got a vital goal in the quarter-final triumph over the USA. He doesn’t believe the game is a foregone conclusion, despite the powerful form the Russians have shown since losing the opening game.
“Of course the Russians have a great team,” he said. “But we can play against anyone. If we play our hockey, we have a great chance of success. We will do everything we can to win, and I believe we can do it.”
Forward Roman Cervenka knows the Olympic Athletes’ firepower better than most: he played for SKA from 2013 to 2015, winning the Gagarin Cup in St. Petersburg. For him, the absence of Vadim Shipachyov from the team’s Olympic action is a big surprise – and possibly an advantage.
However, the Russian team is in imperious form. With 18 goals in three games, and just three conceded, it has the ability to blow away any opponent. Not that everyone is getting excited about that. Nikita Nesterov was concerned that the 6-1 victory over Norway featured some flaws.
“We completely lost our way in the second period,” he said. “We stepped back and we need to be better. We turned over the puck too often in centre ice, and we made stupid decisions.”
Mikhail Grigorenko pointed up the KHL links in the upcoming game. “The Czechs are a good team,” he said. “They are really good defensively and they have a great goalie. A lot of their players are in our league, so we know them pretty well. It’s going to be a tough game.”
Elsewhere, Ilya Kovalchuk was reminding everyone that there are no easy games in the Olympics, while Znarok was refusing to crack a smile until the medals were won. “What? Was that the final already? We beat Norway, and that’s enough?” he said in typically truculent fashion after seeing his team advance to the medal round for the first time since 2006.