GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — They forged bonds from Riga to Cologne and in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
It's all led Germany and the Russians to a David versus Goliath Olympic gold-medal game Sunday. Even though the Russians were favorites all along and expected to win gold in a tournament without NHL stars and Germany was a longshot to even reach the semifinals after not qualifying in Sochi, these two teams are more similar than they are different.
Their familiarity and continuity is the biggest reason they're facing off in the final.
Germany's core group has been together through the Olympic qualification tournament and world championships and has played the same system for the past three years under coach Marco Sturm. The Russians' 25-man roster is made up of 15 players from SKA St. Petersburg and eight from CSKA Moscow, the two best teams in the Kontinental Hockey League.
"That's a big key to our success," Germany defenseman Christian Ehrhoff said Saturday. "We were very familiar with each other. ... (The Russians also) should be really familiar because almost everybody plays on the same teams in Russia."
Germany's improbable run began at the 2016 qualification tournament in Latvia, where it had to beat the host country in a raucous atmosphere to get back in the Olympics. Defenseman Moritz Muller said that made it a tight-knit group as people off the ice and players on it.
"This group has been down a tough road," said Muller, who couldn't wipe a smile off his face after upsetting Canada in the semifinals. "You get to know guys on the ice, being reliable for each other. But I think in the end, what it took for us was to be crazy enough to believe ourselves to get here. Our team chat was called 'Mission Gold' from Day One and maybe we needed to be a little nuts to believe ourselves."
It's a little nuts that Germany is doing this without NHL talent like Leon Draisaitl, Tom Kuhnhackl and Philipp Grubauer, who were integral to qualifying. They're obviously not at the Olympics, but the texts and calls are flowing, Draisaitl FaceTimed with guys after the Canada game and all the players' names who helped Germany qualify are on the walls of the team's locker room at Gangneung Hockey Centre.
Sturm doesn't want to forget about those players but was eager to see how this team with just a handful of former NHL players like Ehrhoff, Marcel Goc and backup goaltender Timo Pielmeier would handle a big stage without the big guns. Germany has put on a master class of structured, organized play as five-man units — the kind of play that's only really possible with this kind of continuity.
"If a team has a chance to play together in a couple tournaments or just the group knows each other, it helps," defenseman Bjorn Krupp said. "I know, myself, when you have a new defensive partner, you try to feel out how he skates, how he feels. Imagine that being as a core group. It has a big impact."
Germany has 16 players back from qualifying and 15 from the 2017 world championships.
Russia didn't have to qualify for the Olympics but has 11 players back from the most recent worlds, where it captured bronze, and is drawing from not only the stardom of Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk but the KHL's elite teams in SKA and CSKA.
"Obviously chemistry's there," said former NHL forward Mikhail Grigorenko, who plays in Moscow. "We know each other pretty good on and off the ice. We've been playing together. It's really important off the ice as well just to have that friendship. The guys, you're with them pretty much the whole season and you play at such a big tournament like Olympics together, too. It makes it easier. You're more comfortable."
The Russians are very comfortable with each other and took a business-like approach to their final preparations for Germany, which had a light, up-tempo practice. Germany players doused Sturm with a Gatorade cooler after beating Canada, while the Russians said they are only here to win it all.
"It's not time to have fun," Russian forward Sergei Andronov said. "What's the reason for having fun today? Tomorrow we will have fun, if everything goes well. Good on them that they're having fun. Let them have fun."
No one needs to tell Germany's players to have fun as the country basks in what is guaranteed to be its best hockey medal in history. The group of guys Muller called "regular dudes" is happy to be here but hoping to pull off what players know would be an even bigger upset than knocking off Sweden and Canada.
"We're really happy meeting back together as a group," Muller said. "We feel like we have something special going here and even after the qualification we said, 'Now we're going to Pyeongchang and we're gonna win gold in Korea' and maybe we are."
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