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Undersized Ustinski gives Team Russia juniors depth in goal

Igor Ustinski, 18, won his first Super Series start (Terry Wilson, OHL Images)

When you play three games in four nights you have to rotate your goalies.

Team Russia head coach Mikhail Varnakov's biggest dilemma was when and whom should he start his backup in the Subway Super Series. Go with hulking Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Andrei Vasilevski in both games against Team QMJHL or do you split the series with Vasilevski and Igor Ustinski?

Varnakov trusted Vasilevski to start both in Blainville-Boisbriand and Val-d'Or, so Ustinski got the nod on Wednesday in Guelph. The 5-foot-10 netminder stepped up by stopping 23-of-24 that night, including a point-blank snapshot from Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Josh Leivo late in the third that preserved Russia's 2-1 win.

That was one of those saves you look and go 'How did he stop it?!'. Cut the drama, it was easy. Really it was.

"He shot it right at me. I didn't do anything," said Ustinski after the game.

For someone who made his debut for his nation's junior team on such a high level, Ustinski looked surprisingly confident and solid throughout the game.

"Well, of course, I was worried somewhat about the game but I wouldn't say I was nervous or anything. Sure, getting ready for the game wasn't easy but Vasya (Andrei Vasilevski) wished me good luck and that was cool."

Ustinski was born in a Siberian town of Tyumen — just like the Vasilevski brothers — and started his career on the local team called Gazovik. He played one season for their junior team, Legion, in the MHL last season before joining now he plays for Stalnye Lisy of Magnitogorsk.

He was drafted by Magnitogorsk two years ago 21st overall. In case you wonder, the same draft featured NHL first-round picks Jonathan Huberdeau (fifth), Andrei Vasilevski (seventh), Mikhail Grigorenko (eighth), Vladislav Namestnikov (11th), Gabriel Landeskog (16th) and Oscar Klefbom (20th). Anton Slepyshev, who should be on Team Russia at the World Championship in Ufa if he recovers from an injury quick enough, went No. 1 overall.

Ustinski was deservedly named Team Russia's game MVP last Wednesday.

"I'm no hero. These guys are the real heroes," he said, pointing to Anton Shenfeld and Maxim Shalunov, who scored both goals for Russia and stood next to Ustinski in the media scrum after the game. "I didn't do anything special. I made a few saves when the team needed them, that's all."

Ustinski doesn't get ahead of himself either. He understands that despite the historical win, there's still a lot of hockey left to be played in the series. Russia has a 6-3 points lead entering Game 4 in Sarnia on Monday (Sportsnet/TVA Sports/NHL Network USA, 7 p.m. ET/4 p.m. PT). Then Russia has Tuesday to trek across three times zones for to face Team WHL back-to-back in Vancouver and Victoria.

"It's too early to celebrate. We still have a lot of games to play. We have to keep winning," says Igor. "I'm happy we won this one. The guys played well and scored two big goals. We stood our ground, faced the Canadian storm in the end and came out on top."

What was the key factor of the game? Ustinski says it was all about staying focused and not letting up even after being scored on.

"You can't just stop playing after you get scored on," he says. "If you do that, you won't win any hockey games. What's the point of playing if you let up?".

Andrei Vasilevski and the Saskatoon Blades' Andrei Makarov played for Team Russia at the last world junior championship and are expected to return to Ufa as well. However, Ustinski is showing he can give them a run for their money.

"Well, I don't know about that," Ustinski shrugged. "I'll do everything to make the team. We'll see what happens."

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