Wed Jan 04 02:32am EST
CALGARY — It just how Yevgeni Kuznetsov and Team Russia rolls at the world junior. They play lights-out for a period, a period and a half, hang on and then don't worry about sparing Canada's collective ego.
For the second year in a row, Kuznetsov revelled in being the villain that every plot needs, at least when taken from the Canadian end. While his statement Monday, "That why I'm here, I came just for that," made in reference to denying Canada gold again might be too vague to be engraved somewhere in Moscow, he followed through on it big-time 24 hours later. His three-goal, four-point performance gave Russia enough cushion to hold off Canada 6-5 in a frantic, frenetic semifinal at Scotiabank Saddledome.
"We just won and it's clear that we're stronger than Canada," the Russian captain said through an interpreter. Such were his spoils even after Canada came within one Ryan Strome pinged goalpost from completing a five-goal comeback to force overtime.
With 18-year-old wings Alexander Khokhlachev and Nail Yakupov riding shotgun, Kuznetsov started planting the seeds of self-doubt early. Coming off a pointless game vs. the Czech Republic, he opened the scoring by snapping home a cross-ice feed from Yakupov for an early 1-0 lead just 7:26 after the opening faceoff. He had the quick response less than two minutes after Brett Connolly had pulled Canada within 2-1 early in the second period, scoring on a shot that deflected in off defenceman Ryan Murray, who had the roughest night of his young career.
"I do my work, he does his work," Yakupov said. "We just move the puck quick and he moves the puck. We have energy, lots of energy, we score 1-2-3 ... six goals."
The trio also came through with the add-injury-to-insult tally midway through the second period. The host team made a dreadfully timed line change, leading to a 2-on-0 where Kuznetsov deked Scott Wedgewood for a 4-1 lead — and Khokhlachev crashed into the goalie, knocking him out of the game.
"They just blindsided me after that goal," Wedgewood said. "My lower back and neck kind of gave out."
After that goal, Kuznetsov belly-flopped on the ice in celebration, either unaware or uncaring that Wedgewood was lying flat on his back in the goal. He was soaking up the animus of 18,000 Canadian fans who saw a gold medal as a birthright. He was cupping his hand to his ear when they were booing him. He'll get more of that on Thursday in the final vs. Sweden.
"I like it very much," he said. "No problem with that."
It was a ballsy performance, just like those three comeback wins in a row last year in Buffalo when Russia won a largely unanticipated gold medal. It sort of underscored a difference between the newly ascendant Russians' approach to the world junior and Canada's tried-and-true — or tired and trite — tack.
Canada's all about the process of picking the right 22-player mix who can play a full 60 minutes of a coach's system. Russia, under Valeri Bragin, the coach who has shown a great knack for getting his team to respond at peak times these past two years, staked his luck on the star system. Bragin's boys had less in the tank after playing the Czech Republic in an overtime quarter-final on Tuesday, plus they also had a 17-year-old goalie, Andrei Vasilevski, whose confidence can go out like a wonky wifi connection. Staying the course. Even after building a 6-1 lead, it was barely enough. Russia tired, a bank-shot goal zapped Vasilevski's confidence, and Andrey Makarov had to come to get the save over the final 5:43.
"I knew that the end of the game would be tough for us," Kuznetsov said. "I thought that the fourth and fifth goals was enough."
The loss shouldn't set off a great national garment-rending across the Great White North. There was a hair's-breadth difference between this game and another Canada-Russia semifnal three years ago in Ottawa, the one where Jordan Eberle tied it with five seconds left and the Canucks went on to win and later take the gold medal. But Kuznetsov's big night perfectly illustrated how the tournament might be changing.
Let's face it, Russia has underachieved big-time over the past decade. Now they have top-end prospects who take this seriously. Kusnetsov, who's 19 and already married, might just be the first. Next year in Ufa, Russia, it could be Khokhlachev and Yakupov giving Canada fits, along with a more mature Mikhail Grigorenko, who assisted on the eventual game-winner tonight. Know this much: Yakupov was inspired by Kuznetsov's example.
"It's my first big tournament," Yakupov said. "I hope I can give everything to win this cup next game."
Russia has a better organized development league, plus the KHL loaning 19-year-olds to the national junior team. They always had the skill, but now they know better how to get their rival where it hurts.
"I am glad that Canada will not go for gold," Kuznetsov said.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet (photo: The Canadian Press).