Denis Golubev of Russia celebrates with teammates after scoring the game-winning goal in a shootout against Sweden. (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)
BUFFALO – As it turns out, Canada actually does not have the market cornered on a sense of otherworldly resilience at the World Junior Championship. Take that in for a second. And for those who have questioned the heart of Russian hockey players in the past, let’s put that particular myth to bed while we’re at it.
Anyone who has watched the Russian team play in this tournament can plainly see that this is a group with not only an uncanny sense of purpose, but also an ability to turn its level of play up a couple of notches.
The result was a 4-3 shootout win over Sweden in the semifinal of the WJC and a berth in the championship game. In pulling off the victory, Russia has become the first country since the tournament adopted the playoff format in 1996 to lose its first two games and go on to play in the gold medal game. Should they win, the Russians would become the first team ever to lose its first two games and capture the gold medal.
The Russians did an enormous amount of soul searching after dropping consecutive games to Canada and Sweden to open the tournament and even though they have been tagged as a group high on talent and low on discipline and team play, the Russians found a sense of purpose.
“We were talking with our coaches a lot about it,” said defenseman Dmitri Orlov. “Everyone was quite down about it, but for many of us we realized it was our last chance to do something at the world junior level. We just couldn’t allow ourselves to make the same mistakes.”
Consider the Russian team had to score twice in the final four minutes to send the quarterfinal against Finland to overtime and needed a goal with 1:28 to force extra time against Sweden and it makes their accomplishment all the more satisfying.
But perhaps the most impressive aspect of the Russian victory was that it came in the first game of semifinal day and the team was coming off just 15 hours rest after dispatching Finland in the quarterfinal. Canada, meanwhile, played in the early game Sunday and the late game Monday.
(So anyone who thinks Canada does not get a number of huge advantages when the tournament is played on North American soil should take note. It was already predetermined that Canada would play in the early game Sunday because TSN had a football commitment at night. And when it drew USA as its semifinal opponent, it got the late game because USA had already been guaranteed the prime time slot for the semifinal.)
“What could I do about it?” Russian coach Valeri Bragin said when asked whether he thought his team had received a disadvantage with the scheduling. “It was set before, so we had no other choice but to come out and play.”
Getting a 46-save effort from goalie Dmitri Shikin was a huge help, as was the once-again shaky play by Robin Lehner of Sweden at the other end. After watching Lehner in the final round-robin game against Canada and the semifinal, the Ottawa Senators have to be clearly concerned about Lehner’s ability to stand up to pressure in big games.
Russia’s win also ruined a tour-de-force performance by draft-eligible Swedish defenseman Adam Larsson, who is battling Sean Couturier for No. 1 overall in the 2011 entry draft. Not only did Larsson score a goal and add two assists in the game, he was outstanding at both ends of the ice and played about seven of the 10 minutes in overtime. Wearing No. 5 for the Swedish juniors, he bounced back from a questionable performance in the game against Canada to look like another Swedish defenseman who wears No. 5 on his back.
But the day belonged to the Russians. They have some formidable talent up front and Shikin has proved his mettle, but they have a shaky defense corps. Whether or not they have another miracle left in them remains to be seen, but judging from their performance so far, it would be unwise to bet against them.
KITSYN TO ST. MIKE’S
Despite Maxim Kitsyn’s attempts to muddle the situation, he will be joining the Mississauga St. Mike’s Majors for the rest of the season after the World Junior Championship.
When asked about it after the semifinal game, Kitsyn said he has a contract with Metallurg Novkuznetsk of the Kontinental League until 2013 and it would cost “a lot of money” for any team to buy him out of it.
While Kitsyn will not be released outright, he will be allowed to play for Mississauga until the end of this season and will be required to return to Metallurg next season, according to a source close to the situation.
When the Los Angeles Kings selected Kitsyn in the sixth round last summer, it was with the understanding he would be loaned to St. Mike’s after the world junior tournament for its run to the Memorial Cup. It is not a matter of finances, said the source, but what is best for his development.
Metallurg will not make the playoffs this season and the thinking is Kitsyn would be better served going to the Memorial Cup tournament with St. Mike’s. So rather than being released as has been reported, he is being loaned for the balance of the season.