Maria Alexandrova ended Russia’s goal drought after four blank periods and helped to fire her country into a match-up with Sweden in Friday’s semi-final.
Sometimes, a goal makes all the difference. Almost half of this game was about Russia struggling to make an impact on Finland’s defence. The rest was about a home offence suddenly freed from its shackles and buoyed by a double salvo inspired by Maria Alexandrova.
The 17-year-old Tornado forward is used to playing here in Dmitrov, and she made herself the darling of the home crowd with a goal and an assist as Russia finally broke the spell around Sanni Ahola’s net. First, Alexandrova was in the right place as Daria Beloglazova’s battling work on the slot saw the puck squirt out to the far post. The angle was tight, but Alexandrova’s high finish was flawless.
For the Russian crowd, which had seen its team blanked by Sweden yesterday and limited to just four shots in the first period, it was a moment of pure relief. And their joy intensified two minutes later as Alexandrova returned the favour for Beloglazova with a fine assist. With Russia on the power play, she swept imperiously down the left-hand channel, got beyond the goal line and fed Beloglazova on the slot. Ahola was equal to the first shot, but the rebound beat the Finnish goalie and Dmitrov’s Ice Palace was bouncing again.
Russia responded to the intense atmosphere. Prior to Alexandrova’s goal, the team had managed a solitary shot on goal in the second period. Afterwards, not even a pair of penalty kills could help Finland battle back into the game.
“The girls all did well,” Alexandrova said. “It’s always a tough game with Finland, and at the start it was really hard, but in the end we managed to play slightly harder.”
But life for the Leijonat might have been very different. After a cautious opening, Finland enjoyed a long spell on the power play – much of it in 6-on-4 format after Polina Luchnikova’s infraction was followed by a delayed call against Alexandrova. The Finnish pressure was intense, but Diana Farkhutdinova was equal to all that Suomi could throw at her. Indeed, as the clock ticked down, Russia almost snatched a short-handed breakaway goal through Ilona Markova.
The same player threatened again on Russia’s first power play, showing neat stick-handling on the doorstep before Ahola made the save, but Finland’s leading scoring Elisa Holopainen almost conjured a goal out of nothing when she robbed Irina Tsatsyna on the blue and only to shoot high over Farkhutdinova’s net. And the Finns came even closer in the final minute of the session, when Linnea Melotindos shot against the inside of the post and watched the puck slide agonisingly along the goalline before a Russian defender hacked it clear.
Finnish head coach Jari Risku admitted that his team’s failure to take its chances proved costly. “We dominated the first period,” he said. “We had nine good chances to score but we didn’t take any of them. Then in the second period we allowed two goals, and even though we started the third quite well we started to lose a bit of faith as time went on.
“I’m disappointed with the result, but Russia played a very good game and I cannot be disappointed with the efforts of our girls.”
Alexandrova’s attacking play in the middle frame deservedly grabbed most of the attention, but Farkhutdinova remained composed at the other end. Her sharp reaction save to deny a twice-deflected Heli Allinen shot through traffic preserved Russia’s two-goal cushion and helped her towards her first shut-out in the tournament. The SKIF Nizhni Novgorod goalie finished the game with 24 saves.
Russia’s head coach, Yevgeni Bobariko, was still looking for improvements despite his team’s advance to the last four. “It was a good, hard game,” he said. “We expected that, we’ve had plenty of good games with Finland before. I was happy with some things, but I thought we made a poor start. The girls began really slowly and it wasn’t until the second period that we got our goals and started to play.
“The number of penalties we took was another minus. We ended up playing almost a whole period short-handed.”
Alexandrova, though, reckoned that the high penalty count was a result of the team’s emotional commitment and determined to do anything to win the game. The coach reflected the team needed to remember to play within the rules and not risk handing the initiative to the opposition.
Friday sees Russia take on Sweden in the semi-final, with memories of Tuesday’s 2-0 victory for the Tre Kronor fresh for both teams. Finland will go against the Czech Republic in the game for 5th place.