Team Russia takes a page out of North America's book with the play of its youngsters in a must-win game.
For the second consecutive night, the kids hijacked the World Cup of Hockey. They scored big goals, made plays, sacrificed their bodies and were big-time difference makers.
Yup, those Russians have some pretty good young players. And they clearly took their gummy bear vitamins before facing Team North America Monday night in what quickly became a must-win situation for them. They might shave a little more frequently than the 23-and-under darlings of the tournament, but the Russian engine was powered largely by its youth.
All four scorers for Russia in its 4-3 win over North America came from players under 25 years old. And that youthful vigor was no more on display than after 24-year-old Evgeni Kuznetsov of the Washington Capitals scored to make it 3-1 during an outburst in which the Russians scored all four of their goals in the space of six minutes and 14 seconds. After his goal, Kuznetsov celebrated by flapping his arms like a bird, a move he explained after the game.
“It was just emotions,” Kuznetsov said. “I play FIFA a lot and I got that celebration from FIFA.”
It did not go unnoticed that aside from Kuznetsov, Russia got goals from Vladislav Namestnikov, Nikita Kucherov and Vladimir Tarasenko. Average age: 23 years, 284 days. Dmitry Orlov, who turned 25 over the summer, logged the most ice time for the Russians and 24-year-old Ivan Telegin hobbled off the ice, not once but twice, after blocking shots.
“The young guys stepped up today,” Namestnikov said. “Others kind of stepped in, too, and played well. Good game.”
It was a night when youth was served at both ends of the ice. It all started in one of those pass-the-torch moments you don’t see very often. Five minutes into the game, Connor McDavid had the puck along the wall, but between him and a scoring chance was 38-year-old Pavel Datsyuk, one of the greatest defensive forwards of his generation. McDavid blew past Datsyuk along the boards, clearly surprising Russian defenseman Alexei Emelin, who was probably thinking, “Oh, it’s Datsyuk. He’s got this.” It created a 2-on-none that Auston Matthews converted for his first goal at the Air Canada Centre.
Twenty-four hours after Team North America stunned the world with a dominant performance over Finland, it found itself in a game against a much more patient and more physical opponent. The Russians didn’t look terribly impressive in the first period, but dominated in the second. They took away much of North America’s vaunted speed, not in terms of their foot speed, but in their ability to make decisions. With its four-goal barrage, the Russians threw a ton of adversity at the kids and, while they responded well, they allowed their opponent to dictate the tone of the game, perhaps for the first time since they began playing together.
“I thought we looked unsure out there for the first time as a team,” said Team North America coach Todd McLellan. “I thought we were hesitant. They were quicker, they were stronger. They stripped us a number of times. We looked slow and that’s not the way we play. Slow reading, slow reacting and, you know, slow to the scoreboard, I guess. It took us a while.”
Still, though, the 23-and-unders still managed to unleash 46 shots and managed to get a mind-boggling 30 more shot attempts than their opponents. They’ve taken 40-plus shots in each of their first two games and have a 158-91 advantage over their opponents in shot attempts. Even in defeat, these kids are a ton of fun to watch. Perhaps it came down to nothing more than a six-minute swing, one in which Russia’s young players came up huge and North America’s showed their age.
“You know, when you’re a group of young players, you’re looking for somebody just to take charge and settle it down, maybe get a shift or two under your belt, and we didn’t get that quick enough,” McLellan said. “In all positions, goaltending, back end and forward. That happens when you’re young. That happens when you’re inexperienced.”
So now the tournament really gets interesting. The Russians looked dead in the water coming into the game and now have some life. The North Americans looked like they could win the Stanley Cup this season before the game, and now could be looking at being eliminated from the tournament if they lose to Sweden Wednesday night. It certainly doesn’t help that they will likely have to go the rest of the tournament without defenseman Aaron Ekblad, who likely received a concussion on a Leo Komarov hit Sunday night.
But clearly they are not the only team in the World Cup relying on young talent. And if Russia’s stars don’t step up soon, it might just be up to the young guys to carry them.
“We don’t really care who scores, we just want to win the game,” Kuznetsov said. “We needed to win the game to stay alive. If we would have lost today, we’d just live with hurting in the heart. That’s tough. We feel like a family."