The Russians celebrate against Team USA (Photo by Markku Ulander/AFP/Getty Images)
Ilya Samsonov's crease was basically a no-go zone during the world junior semifinal as a physically imposing Russian blueline and some timely scoring did in the Americans.
HELSINKI, FINLAND - In a classic Cold War battle, the Russians had the better strategy, beating Team USA 2-1 in a grinding war on ice. The Americans' top line of Auston Matthews, Colin White and Matthew Tkachuk was held off the scoreboard, despite an inordinate amount of ice time given to them by coach Ron Wilson. And while Tkachuk, a top prospect for the 2016 draft, hit a crossbar and came close on several other great chances, the crease in front of goalie and Washington Capitals prospect Ilya Samsonov was largely a no-go zone for Americans.
Russia came into the game with a distinct size advantage, boasting eight skaters who weighed in at 200 pounds or more. Team USA only had two. After the Americans opened the scoring on a Sonny Milano set-up to Christian Dvorak, Russia took over. A strong and fierce defense corps kept the U.S. at bay, which was key to victory.
“You saw everything," said coach Valery Bragin through an interpreter. "You saw how they played.”
That protective shell enabled Samsonov to see pretty much every shot that came his way and the Caps prospect is elite enough that he can stop whatever he sees.
“We needed to play hard against every line," said defenseman Alexander Mikulovich, who plays for OHL Niagara. "It didn't matter if it was Auston Matthews or the fourth line, we needed to play hard. Coach said we need to play simple and put the puck on net. Try to hit everybody and play hard against them.”
Interestingly enough, Samsonov has not been the starter for the bulk of the tournament. The older Alexander Georgiev drew most of the assignments, but he was only so-so against Denmark in the quarterfinal.
Winnipeg Jets prospect Pavel Kraskovsky had an excellent game up front, potting the first Russian goal and then fending off the Americans in the dying minutes of the contest.
But Wilson also shot himself in the foot behind the bench. He seemed to roll about two-and-a-half lines during the game and as good as the Matthews trio is, they could only take so many intense shifts. If the U.S. needed a goal, why not turn to Vancouver Canucks pick Brock Boeser, a prolific sniper with the University of North Dakota who is used to battling older, stronger competition in the NCAA?
Either way, Russia will now take on the host Finns for gold in what is sure to be an intense rivalry game. Russia's immovable defense versus Finland's juggernaut kids, Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi? Yes, that will do.