CALGARY – Russian captain Yevgeni Kuznetsov dazzled with three goals and six assists as Russia pulverized Latvia 14-0 for its third straight win. The defending champions tightened their grip on first place in Group A, while the Latvians head for the Relegation Round.
Kuznetsov’s nine-point outing was the second-highest single-game point total in World Junior history. Only Sweden’s Peter Forsberg (10, 1993, against Japan) ever did better.
"I didn't know [about Forsberg's record], but I was told about it during the game," said Kuznetsov. "I thought the coach was joking – I wasn't expecting to be a point shy. At the end, I was kidding with the coach and asking him to put me in."
It was the first major offensive explosion at this tournament for Russia, which had only scored three goals in each of its two previous victories. And "explosion" hardly begins to capture it.
Nikita Gusev also had a stellar evening, potting two goals and five assists. Meanwhile, Nikita Nesterov added a goal and two assists, and Alexander Khokhlachev had two goals. Nail Yakupov and Nikita Kucherov added three assists apiece, while Viktor Antipin had a pair.
Russia’s Andrei Vasilevski returned between the pipes for his second start and earned his second straight shutout.
"He's a young guy, and it's great for us," Khokhlachev said of the 17-year-old goalie. "When we came here, there were some questions about our goaltending. Two shutouts is great."
The Russians face Sweden on New Year's Eve in what will likely be a showdown for top spot in the group.
"Sweden is an entirely new game, and we are playing against a very strong opponent," said Kuznetsov. Yakupov added: "It's important to beat Sweden and be first in the group."
Initially, Latvian backup Elvis Merzlikins did his best to keep his underdog team in it, but could only stem the flood for so long as Russia outshot Latvia 50-30.
"Russia is a very skilled, very fast team," said Merzlikins. "It was very tough. I was very tired by the third period."
At 10:29 of the first, Merzlikins couldn’t prevent Mikhail Grigorenko from scooping a loose puck high to the glove to give Russia a 1-0 lead.
Just 52 seconds into the second period, Russia went up by two when Artyom Sergeyev sent a high wrister from the top of the left faceoff circle past Merzlikins’ glove.
The game took on a chippy edge. Moments after the second goal, following a neutral zone collision, Grigorenko left the game, favouring his right foot.
The Latvians got a two-man advantage for 1:11, but couldn’t accomplish anything despite good puck movement in the Russian end. Vasilevski held down the fort when he was tested from close range.
Russia made it 3-0 on a dazzling power play goal at 7:04, with Kuznetsov completing a lovely three-way passing play on the backhand past a helpless Merzlikins. It was the Russian captain’s first goal of the tournament, and a tiny harbinger of what was to come.
Kuznetsov didn’t take long to get his second, converting a bad-angle one-timer beautifully set up on the man advantage by Nikita Kucherov at 9:52.
At 12:53, Grigori Zheldakov took a great centering pass from Kuznetsov and knifed a backhand past Merzlikins to make it 5-0 Russia.
Visibly frustrated, the Latvians began jamming the front of Vasilevski’s net, striving to break his shutout streak. But all they got for their pains was another Russian power play with 5:41 left in the middle frame. Nikita Gusev made Latvia pay, powering a one-timer home from the left faceoff circle courtesy of Kuznetsov for a 6-0 lead at 15:07 of the second.
Gusev added another one with 1:26 left in the middle frame, scoring on a backhand on the rush.
Pavel Kulikov and Alexander Khokhlachev wasted no time at the start of the third period, stretching Russia’s lead to 9-0 by the 1:43 mark. Kuznetsov put Russia into double digits at 2:34 with his hat trick goal, set up neatly in front by Gusev. Zemchenko made it 11-0 at 4:14, with Kuznetsov grabbing the second assist.
In the last 10 minutes, Yaroslav Kosov, Khokhlachev, and Nikita Nesterov rounded out the scoring for Russia at 14-0.
"Everybody played great today, and I don't think Latvia expected that many goals," said Khokhlachev.
Kuznetsov's second assist on the last goal was his ninth point. He came close to tying Forsberg's record in the dying moments, but even with Russia's offence gushing like an oil well, the fifteenth goal proved elusive.
"Peter Forsberg is not a player that you can easily displace from a record book," said Kuznetsov, who "only" scored 11 points in the entire 2011 tournament as a World Junior rookie. To keep his scoring feat in perspective, he added: "Last year we learned that only a full team effort wins a gold medal."
The crowd chanted “Let’s go, Latvia!” midway through the third, and booed Russia. But it was scant consolation for the disheartened teens from the small Baltic nation. They'll complete their Preliminary Round schedule Friday versus Switzerland.
(Nathan can be reached at email@example.com)