GANGNEUNG, South Korea (Reuters) - In a matchup few oddsmaker would have predicted, a powerhouse Russian squad will face off on Sunday against an upstart German team in a battle for one of the ice hockey world’s most precious prizes: an Olympic gold medal.
The Russians last won a gold medal in hockey in 1992 in Albertville, France, in the first Winter Olympics of the post-Soviet Union era. As the Soviets, they won seven gold medals in nine Games from 1956 to 1988.
For the Germans, a win would mark their first gold medal ever in ice hockey.
The Russian men, playing as the Olympic Athletes from Russia because of a doping ban, have long been seen as a favorite in a tournament being played without NHL players for the first time in 24 years.
Nicknamed the Big Red Machine, they are stacked with top home-grown talent built around a core of ex-NHL all stars Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk - both household names in a country in love with the sport.
They have been on a tear since dropping their first game of the Olympics to Slovakia, outscoring their next four opponents 21-3.
“We’re here just for one reason and I think we deserve to be in the final so we’ll see, the best team will win,” said Kovalchuk, who has scored five goals to become the top-scoring Russian Olympian of all time.
“That’s an elite team,” U.S. coach Tony Granato said of the Russians, who beat his team 4-0 in the preliminary round. “They could give 20 NHL teams a run for their money.”
But Germany? A team whose players and coaches concede playing a game that suffers as a distant second or third fiddle to the country’s sporting passion, football, they snuck up on everybody.
They dropped their first two games of the tournament and could have gone away quietly. Instead they started winning when it mattered and found themselves in the playoffs.
First they took down Sweden, whom they had never beaten on Olympic ice, to make the semi-finals and then they edged Canada, another team they were yet to conquer in the Olympics. They will now play in their first-ever gold medal game.
“Sounds crazy right?” German coach Marco Sturm said after his team’s win on Friday night. “I think it really helped us to play the top teams early on, Finland and Sweden.”
“You know we learned from it. We lost some games but we learned from it. Everyone felt it. We grew as a team and that’s just the result. I’m very proud of my guys.”
Reporting By Dan Burns; editing by Sudipto Ganguly