CALGARY – Yevgeni Kuznetsov had three goals and an assist to lead Russia to a stunning 6-5 victory over the home Canadians to earn a date with Sweden in the gold-medal game.
Russia will try to repeat as champions for the first time since 2003-04 while Sweden hopes to win for the first time since 1981. Canada will play Finland for the bronze medal. Both games are on Thursday.
The Russian win ends an incredible run of ten straight appearances by Canada in the gold-medal game. The last final game without Canada was 2001 when the Czechs beat Finland, 2-1.
"It was a tough game to play, and a very hard game to play," said Kuznetsov.
But for a while in the third period, it looked like Canada might make history. Down 6-1 eight minutes into the final period, Canada reeled off four goals and hit the post twice for what would have been the tying goal and the greatest comeback in U20 history. In the end, the 6-5 score goes into the books--if it's a classic Canada-Russia game, it must be 6-5, eh?
Classic? This must rank as one of the greatest U20 games ever played.
"We won in front of everyone," said Nail Yakupov, who had four assists in the game. "Pretty exciting to beat Canada in Canada."
"It's tough to come back, but we tried," said Canada's Mark Stone. "We were frustrated at the start."
Canada outshot the Russians 56-24 but couldn't find the back of the net early on, when it mattered most.
The first period was a period of differences. Canada was nervous and Russia skated with confidence. The Russians took Canada’s physical play out of the game by turning away and avoiding every check possible. And it was Russia that capitalized on its chances.
The Russians gained a little momentum from an early power play, and although they didn’t score they continued to skate fluidly through the middle. A bad Canadian pass deep in their end was picked off by Nail Yakupov who created a three-on-one. He waited patiently and made a great pass to the trailer on the play, captain Kuznetsov, and his quick shot beat Scott Wedgewood who couldn’t go from one side to the other in time.
This marked the first time in the tournament Canada trailed at any time of a game.
Canada nearly tied the game just moments later on a two-on-one close in, but although Mark Stone made a perfect pass to set up Ryan Strome to the back side of Andrei Vasilevski’s net, nerves got the better of Strome and he fired wide.
The Canadians continued to press and had plenty of the play, but it was Russia that scored again later in the period on the power play. Nikita Nesterov’s point shot went all the way through traffic and eluded Wedgewood, and like the first goal you could hear a pin drop the silence was so loud.
Freddie Hamilton and Jonathan Huberdeau also had great close-in chances but failed to connect for Canada in the first.
Canada had a great chance with a five-on-three created when Vasilevski smacked a Canadian in the face with the flat part of his stick. The goalie was lucky to be given only two minutes, but on the ensuing power play Dougie Hamilton took a penalty to minimize the advantage and the Canadians, despite several good chances, simply couldn’t finish.
Appearances are sometimes deceiving. What looked to be a close, tense, and entertaining game turned ugly for Canada in the middle period on many fronts.
Russia seemed to come out in the second looking to sit on the lead, and Canada came out in full offensive mode, creating many fine chances and keeping the puck in their opponents’ end for much of the first two and a half minutes.
They were rewarded at 2:37 when Brett Connolly brought the puck off the right wing boards and beat Vasilevski to the short side. Moments earlier Connolly hit the post on a nice deflection.
Despite making it a 2-1 game and getting the crowd back in the game, Canada couldn’t keep the momentum going. Instead, Russia reeled off three quick goals, chased Wedgewood, and took full control. Again on a three-on-one Kuznetsov finished the play with a shot that deflected off a Canadian stick and went high over Wedgewood’s glove.
Before the period was halfway through Kuznetsov had notched his hat trick goal on a partial breakaway, and on the play Wedgewood was run into by a Russian and forced to leave the game. Mark Visentin came in and played the rest of the game.
It wasn’t long before he, too, was beaten. The Russians were awarded another power play, and Kuznetsov rounded the net while all four Canadians stood and watched. He fed Alexander Khokhlachev at the top of the crease, and just like that it was a 5-1 game. Coach Don Hay called a timeout, but surely it was too little and much too late.
A series of penalties marred the period, Canada coming out on the short end of many of the calls. Ildar Isangulov hammered Boone Jenner in centre ice with what Canada felt was an elbow to the head, but the Russian escaped with a minor. Once he got up, Jenner was given a five-minute major and game misconduct for spearing. Later in the period, a frustrated Huberdeau took a minor, slammed his stick in disgust, and was given an additional misconduct, much to the wrath of the pro-Canadian fans.
Nikita Kucherov added a goal midway through the third to make it 6-1 after Canada again had several good scoring chances on a power play without being able to convert.
And then the most incredible comeback began. Canada scored twice in 23 seconds midway through the period thanks to goals bz Dougie Hamilton at 9:20 and Jaden Schwartz at 9:43 to get the fans back into the game. A lop-sided 6-1 game was now a more tense 6-3 affair.
Canada pressed with all it hadand Brendan Gallagher redirected a point shot to beat Vasilevski and make it 6-4. Brandon Gormley then scored at 14:17, his power-play point shot finding the twine. Almost six minutes to play''and a one-goal game!
At that point Russian coach Valeri Bragin did the untinkable. He took Vasileski out and put in Andrei Makarov. He was tested immediately and often, and had lots of luck on his side, but he held the fort the rest of the way. With Visentin on the bench in the final minute, Canada came inches away from tying the game. Strome hit the post, and Connolly was foiled by Makarov with the rebound.
The rally--thrilling, unimaginable, incredible--fell short. Canada now plays for bronze and the Russians for gold.
"We let down in the beginning," said Huberdeau, "but came back strong. We can't go back. We have to focus on the bronze."
"Russia wins, and that's all that matters," said Yakupov. "We scored more goals. It's exciting to be in the finals. The game starts 0-0."
In the end, Canada lost for all the reasons one might have thought--lack of discipline, inabiliy to capitalize on scoring chances, goaltending. And Russia won for all the reasons one might have thought--speed and skating, opportune scoring.
(Nathan can be reached at email@example.com)