GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) – Canada and the Russians are in the semifinals as expected.
The other two finalists weren’t expected to be here at all.
The Olympic men’s hockey tournament final four has two surprise visitors: the Czech Republic, which is in its first semifinal since 2006, and Germany, which is in contention for its first medal since 1976 in Innsbruck – as West Germany before unification. The Czech Republic will play the favored Russians on Friday after knocking off the United States 3-2 in a shootout, while Germany will face Canada after upsetting top-seeded Sweden 4-3 in overtime.
Germany didn’t even qualify for the Sochi Olympics, and now coach Marco Sturm’s team gets a chance to face two-time defending-champion Canada, which lost starting goaltender Ben Scrivens to an upper-body injury and needed Kevin Poulin to make 15 saves to beat Finland. Poulin could be counted on for more against Germany.
“I was ready before coming in,” said Poulin, a former New York Islanders goaltender thrust into the biggest role of his career. “It’s not a surprise. It might be happening in many games. You’ve got to be ready mentally and you just have to stay in.”
The Russians didn’t have to do much other than show up. The “Olympic Athletes from Russia” – not officially Russia because of International Olympic Committee sanctions over doping – swept aside Norway 6-1 and has a chance to end its 16-year medal drought.
The gold-medal favorite in a tournament without NHL players, the pressure is on the Russian players from fans back home. Through Wednesday, there have been no Russian gold medals in Pyeongchang.
“Our dream’s still on,” said captain Pavel Datysuk, who was on the Russian team that won bronze in 2002. “We are in a tournament where we are the top favorite, but we need to improve.”
Improve? Since losing to Slovakia in their opener, the Russians have won by scores of 8-2, 4-0 and 6-1 and have looked every bit like the “red machine” defenseman Nikita Nesterov predicted before their first game.
“We are a very hungry group of guys,” former NHL star Ilya Kovalchuk added. “Next game will be the biggest one.”
That’s always the mentality for Canada, which played what forward Eric O’Dell called “good Canadian hockey” in shutting out Finland 1-0 on Wednesday. It was reminiscent of coach Mike Babcock’s team strangling the life out of games and scoring opportunistic goals on the way to gold in Sochi.
There is no reason this Canada team can’t follow that blueprint, too.
“We’re finding our identity in terms of how we want to play and what is going to bring us success,” captain Chris Kelly said. “I think we’re a defensive-minded team that’s going to work hard and be in the right positions and hopefully create chances through good defense.”
Good defense and great goaltending is working out for the Czech Republic. Pavel Francouz, 27, has stopped nine of 10 shots in two different shootouts and the Czechs are making former great Dominik Hasek proud and reminding him of his 1998 team that won gold.
“I think the whole nation is excited: They talk about it on radio, they talk about it on TV,” Hasek said by phone. “We are closer to the gold medal, it’s gonna be the whole nation watch (on) TV.”
Germany might be watching now, too, after Patrick Reimer scored the winner to beat Sweden for the first time at the Olympics and improve to 2-14 against the more traditional hockey powerhouse in this tournament and the world championships.
This historic trip to the semifinals didn’t come without drama. Germany blew a 3-1 lead but got 31 saves from Danny aus den Birken and Reimer’s winner to move on.
“We knew Sweden always had the chance to come back,” Reimer said. “They tied up the game but we didn’t want to lose our heads, and we managed to not do that.”