TORONTO (Reuters) - Russia claimed a do-or-die 3-0 victory over Finland on Thursday to advance to the semi-finals of the World Cup of Hockey and set up a mouth-watering showdown with arch-rivals Canada.
Canada, who stormed through preliminary round play unbeaten to grab top spot in Group A, will face off against Russia on Saturday while Sweden, winners of Group B, take on Team Europe on Sunday.
Needing a win to clinch a spot in the last four, Russia got second period goals 79 seconds apart from Vladimir Tarasenko and Ivan Telegin, then rode the netminding of Sergei Bobrovsky to victory as they dashed Team North America’s hopes of advancing.
Evgeni Malkin added a powerplay goal in the third while Bobrovsky stopped all 21 shots he faced for his first shutout of the tournament.
Canada-Russia is hockey’s most storied rivalry and Saturday’s semi-final shapes up as another classic with Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin, the sport’s two biggest names, set to lead their respective teams into battle.
”It’s Canada verses Russia, it’s not two players,“ said Ovechkin, who set up Russia’s first goal. ”Two teams with a great history, it’s going to be tough, it’s going to be hard playing here in Canada, but it is also going to be fun.
“Tomorrow we are going to think how we beat Canada. The opportunity is huge.”
Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia’s status as a hockey superpower has faded, causing the rivalry to lose some of its heat but none of the animosity.
Canada have won gold at three of the last four Winter Games while the once unstoppable Big Red Machine has sputtered along, limited to a single bronze.
Finland, who had knocked Russia out of the Sochi Olympics in the quarter-finals, looked ready to be the Russian bogeyman once again after a scoreless opening period.
But Russia broke the deadlock early in the second when Tarasenko took a nifty goalmouth feed from Ovechkin and redirected into an open net.
Just 1:19 later, Telegin added an insurance marker by stickhandling across the goalmouth and sliding the puck past a sprawling Tuukka Rask.
“The first period was kind of asleep, kind of a boring game. We didn’t want to make a mistake and give them an opportunity to take the lead,” said Ovechkin.
“They hit the crossbar and then we scored two goals right away. It kind of gave us some breathing room.”
In the late game, the U.S. fell to the Czech Republic 4-3 to close out the group stage of the competition. Both teams were already eliminated heading into the contest and the Americans suffered yet another defeat as goaltender Ben Bishop was pulled after giving up four goals on 20 shots through two periods. The U.S. finished tournament 0-3-0, finishing seventh of the eight teams. “None of us with the U.S. team here from head to toe is happy with what’s happened here,” coach John Tortorella told reporters. “We come up short but I think some guys gave some really true efforts. We just didn’t find a way to win the hockey game.”
Additional reporting by Jahmal Corner in Los Angeles; Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes/John O'Brien