Russia’s golden dream came to an abrupt end in Vancouver as Valery Bragin’s U20 roster suffered a narrow semi-final loss to Team USA.
Russia 1 USA 2 (0-1, 1-1, 0-0)
The Russian youngsters had impressed throughout the tournament, with a memorable victory over Canada in the group stage – and a superb game-winner from Salavat Yulaev’s Pavel Shen – emerging as the big talking point of week one of the IIHF World Junior Championship.
After rolling over Slovakia – a roster that included Slovan Bratislava prospect Adam Liska – 8-3 in the quarter-finals, there was real hope that the Russians could secure gold for the first time since 2011. But it was not to be. Despite out-shooting Team USA 35-27, Russia slipped to a 1-2 loss. Grigory Denisenko’s second-period goal was not enough to book a place in tomorrow’s final; instead, Russia goes into the bronze-medal game against the loser of the Finland vs Switzerland clash played Saturday evening local time in Vancouver.
Traktor forward Vitaly Kravtsov summed up the evening: “The hockey gods did not smile on us tonight,” he told Match TV after the hooter. “All the guys did great but somewhere it was written that we wouldn’t win today. There’s nothing to say, we’re devastated. Sometimes we just didn’t get the luck, I had a chance to score, to tie the game, but now we will give everything [in the bronze-medal game] and play for Russia.”
The first period was one of frustration and controversy for Russia. Bragin’s team made by far the brighter start, putting the Americans under pressure from the off. The reward seemed to arrive in the eighth minute when Nikita Shashkov diverted a Dmitry Samorukov point shot into the net. However, the puck went off the Sibir forward’s skate; under revised IIHF rules – which have dispensed with the familiar ‘kicking motion’ formula – this was a deliberate redirect rather than an inadvertent deflection and thus no goal.
Russian captain Klim Kostin, a Dynamo Moscow graduate now playing in the Blues organization, was unimpressed with the call. “In the NHL, it would have been a goal,” he said. “There was no movement of the skate. But whether we agree or not, we don’t make the calls.”
Reprieved, Team USA absorbed the pressure and then caught Russia on the counter attack. Logan Cockerill led the charge down the left channel and his feed from the goal line dropped perfectly for Oliver Wahlstrom to fire into the open side of the net.
Head coach Bragin felt that the two first-period incidents defined the outcome of the game. “I believe our goal was good, that was the issue,” he said. “In games like this, the first goal is so important. We warned the players not expect many goals tonight. We got into a situation [after the disallowed goal] where it was little easier for our opponent to play. But at 2-1 we took full control of the game but could not score a second goal. If we had got that, we could have squeezed out a win.”
The middle stanza started poorly for the Russian youngsters. As the team tried to kill a ‘too many men’ penalty, the Americans piled up the pressure. Eventually the defense was caught out as Jack Hughes got the puck to the net and Sasha Chmelevski got in front of his opponent to squeeze a shot through Pyotr Kochetkov’s five-hole.
“The trainers told us ‘that’s life’,” said Nikolai Kovalenko. “Sometimes hockey presents your opponent with chances like that. It’s sport, anything can happen.”
Grigory Denisenko, a club-mate of Kovalenko’s in Yaroslavl, composed Russia’s response. The Lokomotiv youngster showed just why he was a first-round draft pick back in the summer when he pounced on a loose puck in his own zone, raced down the boards and, with defenseman Dylan Samberg unable to make a decision, finished the play with a short-side shot the flashed past the helmet of goalie Cayden Primeau. For Denisenko, that was the fourth goal of the championship, leading Russia’s scoring. Game on, in the most emphatic manner.
The third period saw Russia streaming forward in search of a tying goal. From Vitaly Kravtsov peppering Primeau with shots in the early moments of the session to Shen’s last-minute effort, this was a dominant Russian performance. Primeau was selected as the best American player of the game, and when he was beaten by Kostin’s shot early in the third, Phil Kemp scurried back to sweep the puck to safety. Kochetkov also had his moments in a game characterized by high-quality goaltending, and his spectacular stick save to deny Ryan Poehling midway through the third kept Russian hopes alive until the bitter end. However, the Americans clung on to beat Russia for the fourth successive time in World Junior play. Now Bragin’s boys must pick themselves up and try to secure the consolation of bronze medal less than 24 hours after the end of this game.
“We battled to the end, we did everything we could,” added Kovalenko. “When the hooter sounded, there was no need to say anything: everybody understood what it meant. Now we need to bounce back and win that bronze.”