CALGARY – There’s no Nureyev or Baryshnikov on the roster, but this year’s Russian World Junior team sure can dance. Russia opened its defence of its world title on Boxing Day, beating Switzerland 3-0 with three beautiful goals.
Alexander Khokhlachev, Nikita Gusev, and Mikhail Grigorenko scored for Russia, which features just one returning player from 2011: captain Yevgeni Kuznetsov. The talent level on the 2012 edition, however, may be even higher.
"We played OK in the offensive end, and not so good in the defensive zone," said Grigoresnko. "Our goalie played well for Team Russia in the U18 tournaments. He is a great goalie."
Seventeen-year-old starting goalie Andrei Vasilevski, a prospect for the KHL’s Salavat Yulayev Ufa, recorded the shutout in his World Junior debut. Switzerland outshot Russia 40-30.
"I was nervous before the game," said Vasilevski. "I did not expect a shutout."
It was a highly entertaining contest for fans at the Saddledome with plenty of end-to-end action, playmaking, and body contact.
It also showed that both teams have work to do. The Russians need to cut down on their defensive breakdowns, despite not allowing a goal, and the Swiss need to bear down on their scoring chances, which weren't lacking.
“It felt good to be here with the national team," said Swiss forward Sven Bärtschi, a 2011 first-round pick of the Calgary Flames. "Also, the crowd was behind us. I’m proud of the way we played. We had a great deal of scoring chances. Their goalie played well.”
The Russians know better than to take the Swiss lightly after what happened in the 2010 quarter-finals in Saskatchewan. There, Nino Niederreiter scored the late equalizer and the overtime winner in a shocking 3-2 upset. (At 19, “El Nino” is actually still eligible for World Junior play, but wasn’t released by the NHL’s New York Islanders for this tournament.)
Both teams came out hitting and skating in the first period, and while the Swiss had the better of the play early on, the opportunistic Russians struck first on a spectacular solo effort.
Khokhlachev pounced like a hawk on a neutral zone turnover by Samuel Walser, busting wide around Swiss captain Dario Trutmann before beating goalie Tim Wolf high to the stick side at 8:22.
Switzerland came close to tying it when Truttman whipped a shot off the crossbar with about four minutes left in the opening stanza. Shortly afterwards, Christoph Bertschy cut to the net and knifed a backhand attempt that Vasilevski barely stopped.
The sides traded chances in the second period, and Gusev put Russia up 2-0 with a lovely tip after Yaroslav Kosov circled to the center point and flung the puck toward the Swiss cage.
Switzerland’s best chances in the middle frame came while storming the Russian net, moments after highly touted Sarnia Sting forward Nail Yakupov was foiled by Wolf on a partial breakaway near the 14-minute mark.
At 15:04 of the second, Grigorenko finished off a tic-tac-toe passing play on the rush to give the Russians an insurmountable three-goal lead.
Just before the end of that period, Switzerland’s Dario Simion grabbed a turnover by Gusev at the Swiss blueline and rushed in alone on Vasilevski, but his shot went high and wide.
Boosted by the crowd's chants of "Go Swiss Go!", Switzerland continued to press hard offensively in the final 20 minutes, but just couldn't solve Vasilevski.
Wolf got a nice round of applause for his breakaway save on Nikita Kucherov with eight minutes left. The crowd booed at the end when Mikhail Naumenkov hauled down Walser, almost in the clear with just seconds left, but no penalty shot was awarded.
"The Swiss played hard," said Yakupov. "We will build on this game for the next game against Slovakia."
(Nathan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)