Olympic Athlete of Russia Nikita Gusev, the scoring leader of his team, and German defenceman Christian Ehrhoff, who will be the flag bearer at the closing ceremony for his country. Photos: Andre Ringuette, Matt Zambonin / HHOF-IIHF Images
IIHF writers preview the Olympic men's final
It's a final match-up that nobody expected. So we got three correspondents back to weigh up the key issues ahead of OAR vs Germany for the gold medal.
Between them, Lucas Aykroyd, Andrew Podnieks and Andy Potts have covered every Olympic Winter Games and IIHF World Championship in the 21st century. The individual opinions expressed below do not necessarily represent the views of the IIHF.
In Germany, they're talking about a 'Miracle on Ice 2018'. How big a shock is it to see this team get past Sweden and Canada, the current World and Olympic champions?
Aykroyd: In fairness, you have to acknowledge that these rosters are utterly different. The Swedes have just five returnees from Cologne 2017, and the Canadians have nary a soul from Sochi. Still, in the grand historical context, it’s a huge shock, even considering that Germany had to get past Kevin Poulin and Chris Lee rather than Carey Price and Drew Doughty. But when you’ve witnessed Germany’s pride, persistence and teamwork over three straight playoff games, it becomes less surprising. I had a feeling the Germans would give Canada a run for its money. Now they’ve banked a medal.
Podnieks: It's a huge shock. Monumental. Completely, totally unexpected. At the same time, they've won four in a row and are playing with tons of confidence, and they're winning by playing good hockey. This is unexpected, but it's not "lucky."
What's the secret to Germany's success?
Aykroyd: Felix Schutz told me after beating Canada: “We’ve been playing together for many years now. We know each other. Most of the guys I have played with since I was 16.” But it goes beyond the familiarity factor of an all-DEL roster. Coach Marco Sturm has given this team the confidence to play aggressively and make plays. We’ve never seen this kind of finish from Germany in top-level IIHF competition. The closest thing would be the 7-1 shocker over the Czechs at the 1996 World Cup of Hockey, and that was a one-off. Even finishing fourth on home ice at the 2010 IIHF World Championship, Germany never got more than three goals a game.
Potts: Before the games, we wondered if the teams with fewer NHL players would benefit from bringing more of their first-choice roster to Korea. Germany has clearly done that. More importantly, those players have risen to the occasion, despite a tough start to the tournament. Sturm deserves huge credit for getting his players to reach unexpected heights here.
After that stumble against Slovakia, the OAR have scored 21 and allowed 3 in four games. Could anyone stop Oleg Znarok's team ending that long wait for gold?
Aykroyd: At my first Worlds in St. Petersburg in 2000, the Russians finished 11th with a roster featuring Pavel Bure, Alexei Yashin, and Sergei Gonchar. They lost to Switzerland, Latvia, and Belarus. That taught me anything is possible.
Podnieks: Players from the OAR have a long history of looking good and playing well against lesser teams. They haven't played Canada, Sweden, or Finland here. In truth, probably only they can stop themselves. If they get distracted, bothered, or start playing individually, you know they're in trouble. They are, of course, massive favourites, but they don't always play up to their expectations.
Potts: This OAR team is possibly the ‘ugliest’ I’ve seen from the Russians – and I mean that as a sincere compliment. There’s a greater willingness to do the dirty work, block those shots, kill those penalties. In the past, that side of the game has been the key weakness. If they keep it up, it’s hard to imagine any of the rosters in PyeongChang denying them at this stage.
Who do you see as the key players on each side in the final?
Aykroyd: For good or for bad, Ilya Kovalchuk. He could clinch the gold medal with a hat trick, or he could take an undisciplined penalty that enables Germany to make history. He’s 34 years old, but he hasn’t changed. We saw it with his back-to-back minors against the Czechs. As for Germany, I’ll take the flash and dash of 22-year-old forward Dominik Kahun. Undoubtedly he’d like to make up for missing that penalty shot against Canada. Also, goalie Danny aus den Birken needs to play the game of his life.
Potts: Apart from the German goalie, former Stanley Cup finalist Christian Ehrhoff is one of the few players on that roster to have featured in the biggest of the big games. The defenceman’s experience will be huge for his team-mates tonight. OAR has plenty of scoring power, but we’ve all seen how Russian defences can go missing at the crucial moment. Over to you, Vyacheslav Voynov.
Podnieks: There have been a couple of games where Ilya Kovalchuk looks like a player possessed. If he skates like that for 60 minutes, the Germans are in trouble. Having said that, there's no better recipe for success than great goaltending, and if Danny aus den Birken can play well and give the team confidence, who knows what can happen?
How much has the absence of the NHL players affected this year’s Olympics?
Aykroyd: It’s injected unpredictability. It’s enabled young players like Eeli Tolvanen, Ryan Donato, and Kirill Kaprizov to strut their stuff. (I wish I could say the same of Rasmus Dahlin, but you’d have to ask Rikard Gronborg about that.) Compared to Sochi, the overall skill level has been lower, but the drama and surprises have been arguably even greater. People will remember these Olympics for a long time.
Podnieks: Significantly. The plain truth is the skill level is greatly diminished. That means everything from pace of play, speed, execution, passing ability, scoring ability, defensive focus. It has been a pretty level playing field, and by and large the best teams are still the best teams, but it has been a factor, for sure.
Potts: The good news, for me, is a more competitive tournament – the gap from one to 12 is tighter. I doubt we’d be talking about a Cinderella run to the final if the NHL was here, and that’s the kind of narrative that makes for great sport. The downside, of course, is the lack of glitter. There’s been some fairly workmanlike hockey at times, and maybe a missed opportunity to promote the best of our game to a global audience.