GANGNEUNG, South Korea – The Russians expected to play for the Olympic men’s hockey gold medal for the first time in 20 years.
Their opponent is quite the surprise: Germany will play in its first Olympic hockey final on Sunday hours before the games conclude.
Patrick Hager’s power-play goal at 12:31 of the second period wound up the game-winner as Germany stunned two-time defending gold medalist Canada 4-3 Friday night to set up a very unexpected gold medal game. Germany has only two bronze medals in hockey in its history – the last in 1976.
After upsetting top-seeded Sweden and pulling off their latest amazing win, an elusive gold medal suddenly isn’t so far-fetched.
“Who knows? Who knows?” German goalie Danny Aus Den Birken said with a big smile. “If we keep fighting like this, we have nothing to lose.”
The Germans may believe in each other, but this is a country that didn’t even qualify for the Olympic men’s tournament four years ago at Sochi. They finished 11th in Vancouver, and they had to qualify for this tournament.
Coached by former NHL player Marco Sturm, the Germans scored two power-play goals against backup Canadian goalie Kevin Poulin with Ben Scrivens out injured. This wasn’t the Canada team that won gold in 2014 in Sochi or 2010 in Vancouver with a roster stocked with NHL stars.
“We didn’t know what to expect,” Sturm said. “Everyone, the best players should be in Olympics. All the NHL guys should be in the Olympics. That’s just what the event is for and hopefully in the future they will be back on Olympic ice.”
For now, the Germans have capitalized in their biggest win yet. They had a bunch of German athletes in the Gangneung Hockey Center cheering them on.
After Canada’s last flurry was ended with the puck sent out of the offensive zone, the Germans hugged and huddled in celebration with the Canadians simply standing around in disbelief. Even the Germans on the ice may need a few hours to realize exactly what they’ve done, and Winnipeg native Brooks Macek said this win is huge.
“Everybody talks about 1976 and winning bronze medal, and now for the next 50 years they’re going to talk about us,” German defenseman Christian Ehrhoff said. “That’s why it’s the greatest day in German hockey.”
Matthias Plachta had a goal and an assist, Frank Mauer and Macek each had a goal for Germany. Gilbert Brule had a power-play goal for Canada before being ejected for a high hit on David Wolf. Mat Robinson and Derek Roy also scored for Canada.
Next up for Germany is a powerhouse Russian team that has looked every bit the favorite. Veteran goaltender Vasily Koshechkin stopped all 31 shots he faced to put the “Olympic Athletes from Russia” into the final with a 3-0 victory over the Czech Republic earlier Friday.
Russia last reached the Olympic final in 1998 when it lost to the Czech Republic and hasn’t won gold since 1992 when it played as the unified Community of Independent States team.
“It would just mean everything to us,” forward Mikhail Grigorenko said of trying to end the 26-year drought. “It’s huge for us, for the players, for Russian hockey and the whole country.”
Playing in front of raucous, flag-waving fans as they have all tournament, the Russians were not overly powerful but certainly as opportunistic as they were in a 4-0 victory over the United States in group play. They scored only twice on 19 shots against Czech goalie Pavel Francouz and Koshechkin did the rest.
Koshechkin improved to 3-1-0 with a 1.08 goals-against average and .951 save percentage after getting the nod as the No. 1 goalie over NHL prospects Ilya Sorokin and Igor Shestyorkin. He’ll almost certainly start the final Sunday.
“He’s been our best player this tournament,” Grigorenko said. “He’s been playing (almost) every game and he’s just making a lot of saves. He made some huge saves tonight, and he was good.”
Kontinental Hockey League star Nikita Gusev and Vladislav Gavrikov scored goals 27 seconds apart in the second period on plays Francouz had little chance of stopping. Kirill Kaprizov jumped in to screen Francouz on Gusev’s goal that was upheld after a goaltender interference challenge. Gavrikov put the puck into an empty net on a 2-on-1 rush with Ivan Telegin.
Former NHL star Ilya Kovalchuk added an empty-netter with 20.9 seconds left.
“We are here for one reason,” Kovalchuk said. “And I think we deserve to be in the final.”
In a tournament without NHL players, the Russians brought a roster almost entirely made up of players from SKA St. Petersburg and CSKA Moscow, the top two teams in the KHL. That includes Kaprizov, a Minnesota Wild prospect who has been one of the best players in the tournament and could be in the NHL as soon as next season.
The Czech Republic has a chance for its first bronze medal since 2006, when it beat Russia in Turin. Bronze will be important, but the Czechs outshot the Russians 31-19 and went 0 for 4 on the power play.
“It’s very tough when you don’t score any goals,” assistant coach Jaroslav Spacek said. “It’s tough to win.”
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