GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — OAR will play for the Olympic men's hockey gold medal for the first time in 20 years thanks to a 34-year-old goaltender on a roll.
Veteran goaltender Vasily Koshechkin stopped all 31 shots he faced to put the Olympic Athletes from Russia into the final with a 3-0 victory over the Czech Republic on Friday. Russia last reached the Olympic final in 1998 when it lost to the Czech Republic and hasn't won gold since 1992 when it played as the Unified Team.
"It would just mean everything to us," forward Mikhail Grigorenko said of trying to end the 26-year drought. "It's huge for us, for the players, for Russian hockey and the whole country."
Playing in front of raucous, flag-waving fans as they have all tournament, the favored Russians were not overly powerful but certainly as opportunistic as they were in a 4-0 victory over the United States in group play. They scored only twice on 19 shots against Czech goalie Pavel Francouz and Koshechkin did the rest.
Koshechkin improved to 3-1-0 after getting the nod to start over NHL prospects Ilya Sorokin and Igor Shestyorkin and will almost certainly start the final Sunday against either Canada or Germany, who play late Friday in the other semifinal.
With teammates mostly clearing the way in front of him to let him see the puck, Koshechkin made save after save look routine in eliminating the hard-working Czechs.
"He's been our best player this tournament," Grigorenko said. "He's been playing (almost) every game and he's just making a lot of saves. He made some huge saves tonight, and he was good."
Kontinental Hockey League star Nikita Gusev and Vladislav Gavrikov scored goals 27 seconds apart in the second period on plays Francouz had little chance of stopping. Kirill Kaprizov jumped in to screen Francouz on Gusev's goal that was upheld after a goaltender interference challenge. Gavrikov put the puck into an empty net on a 2-on-1 rush with Ivan Telegin.
Former NHL star Ilya Kovalchuk added an empty-netter with 20.9 seconds left.
"We are here for one reason," Kovalchuk said. "And I think we deserve to be in the final."
The Czech Republic has a chance for its first bronze medal since 2006, when it beat Russia in Turin. Bronze will be important, but the Czechs outshot the Russians 31-19 and went 0 for 4 on the power play.
"It's very tough when you don't score any goals," assistant coach Jaroslav Spacek said. "It's tough to win."
Francouz said the Russians "look like the strongest team here." They'll have the chance to turn that into gold.
"We played well, our goaltender was good, PK was great," Kovalchuk said. "But whoever that's going to be, it's going to be great game and best team will win."
In a tournament without NHL players, the Russians brought a roster almost entirely made up of players from SKA St. Petersburg and CSKA Moscow, the top two teams in the KHL. That includes Kaprizov, a Minnesota Wild prospect who has been one of the best players in the tournament and could be in the NHL as soon as next season.
Second and third goalies Sorokin and Shestyorkin could in the NHL soon, but they're definitely lower on the depth chart than Koshechkin, who has earned the right to be Russia's No. 1 as one of the rare players not from SKA or CSKA.
Coach Oleg Znarok isn't one for lavish praise. Asked about Koshechkin, he replied in Russian simply: "He is a good goalie."
The Russians seem to have taken on the personality of their coach, with almost every player declining interviews. Even captain Pavel Datsyuk, who spent years in the NHL and is savvy with reporters, gave one-sentence answers.
"We just hope win one more game," he said to one question, adding: "We need one more win."