The semifinals at the 2012 IIHF World Hockey Championship offer a pair of compelling matchups.
If the quarterfinals proved anything, it's that anyone can win at any time. Of the four games played Thursday, two were won in the final 30 seconds and a third saw top-seeded Canada lose in the last 2:30 of regulation. When it was all over, three of the top four seeds from the preliminary round were eliminated, leaving one overwhelming favorite, the defending champion playing in front of their home crowd, and two upstarts.
Here's a look at the pair of Saturday matchups that will decide who plays in the championship game on Sunday at Hartwall Arena in Helsinki.
Russia vs. Finland
The Russians rolled through the preliminary round, going a perfect 7-0-0 while posting a plus-19 goal differential, second only to Canada. And that was before receiving reinforcements courtesy of the Washington Capitals.
With the Capitals eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Russian Hockey Federation extended an invitation to star wingers Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin, both of whom accepted and joined their national team for its 5-2 quarterfinal victory over Norway. Playing on a line with Pavel Datsyuk, Semin and Ovechkin connected for a goal just 7:26 into their first appearance at the 2012 Worlds.
Throw in the dominating play of Evgeni Malkin, who is tied for second in tournament scoring with 15 points in eight games, and a stingy defense that has allowed just 10 goals in eight games, and the Russians are clearly the team to beat. But they've drawn a tough matchup in the semis.
After losing back-to-back games to Canada and the United States in the preliminary round by a combined score of 10-2, the co-host Finns are looking to return to the form that helped them capture the tournament last year in Slovakia. They gained some measure of revenge by eliminating the Americans in a thrilling quarterfinal in which Jesse Joensuu netted the winner with just nine seconds remaining.
To beat the Russians, Finland must control the pace with a tight forecheck and get some timely saves from Petri Vehanen, who leads the tournament with a sterling .955 save percentage and 0.97 goals-against average. Finland doesn't showcase the star power of the Russians -- then again, who does? -- but will rely offensively on the top line of captain Mikko Koivu, Jussi Jokinen, and Valtteri Filppula, all of whom rank among the tournament's top 20 scorers.
With a hometown crowd leading them, the Finns won't go down easy, even against a powerhouse Russian squad.
Czech Republic vs. Slovakia
Both the Czechs and Slovaks floated below the radar in the preliminary round before using goals in the final moments to pull off upsets over Sweden and Canada, respectively, with Milan Michalek giving the Czechs their win off a highlight-reel goal scored with just 29 seconds remaining in regulation. If the preliminary round is any indication, this semifinal matchup should be a tight and closely-contested contest.
Slovakia did not make it to the quarterfinals with their offense. Their 21 goals in the preliminary round tied them with Finland for the fewest among quarterfinal teams, but they managed to find clutch scoring from a variety of sources. Against Canada in the quarters, it was Michal Handzus' redirection with 2:28 remaining in regulation that gave Slovakia the win.
In the preliminary round against a high-scoring American team, Miroslav Satan got the winner with just 37 seconds remaining in regulation. Through the tournament so far, they've outscored the opposition 8-1 in the third period and drawn the fewest penalties, making them arguably the most clutch team still standing. With only 16 goals allowed in eight games, they've also been one of the stingiest defenses and are ranked among the tourney leaders in save percentage and goals against.
But there is one problem: only two teams have allowed fewer goals in at the 2012 World Championship and one of them is the Czech Republic.
While the Finland-Russia semifinal is a matchup between two contrasting styles, the Czech Republic and Slovakia are practically mirror images. Both relied on timely scoring and tight defense to make it to the final four. Czech goaltender Jakub Kovar (1.77 GAA, .938 save percentage, one shutout) and Slovakia backstop Jan Laco (1.86 GAA, .928 save percentage, one shutout) even posted stats that were almost identical.
Both teams also featured among the tournament's most successful penalty killing units, but the Czechs have some statistical advantages. Eight games into the tournament, the Czech Republic has shown impressive scoring efficiency and a power play that is scoring at a 32-percent clip. The real X-factor for the Czechs should be Martin Erat, who has scored three goals, all on the power play, in just four tournament games. With five goals, Ales Hemsky is tied for third at the 2012 Worlds.
Don't expect a high-scoring affair between these two neighbors, but as in the quarterfinals, one of these teams could get the winning goal in the final minutes.