With a heart-stopping 4-3 shootout victory over Switzerland on Wednesday, Russia advanced to Thursday’s semi-finals against Sweden. Nikita Kucherov got the late tying goal and shootout winner.In the five-round shootout, Mikhail Grigorenko had Russia's other goal, while Alessio Bertaggia got one for Switzerland.
While the Russians last won World Junior gold in 2011, they haven’t prevailed on home ice since 1983 (Leningrad). After surviving this quarter-final scare, the highly touted hosts are now just two wins away. The last host team to win the World Juniors was Canada (2009).
Kucherov, Grigorenko, and Alexander Khokhlachyov tallied for Russia in regulation. Christoph Bertschy, Martin Ness and Sven Andrighetto scored for Switzerland, and Samuel Guerra had two assists.
"Our team had a lot of scoring chances and we took a lot of penalties," said Russian coach Mikhail Varnakov.
Of the moments leading up to Kucherov's late tying goal, Grigorenko said: "I was nervous, but there were still two minutes left."
Russia’s Andrei Vasilevski and Switzerland’s Melvin Nyffeler staged a fine goaltending duel. Shots on goal favoured the Swiss 44-37.
Speaking of Kucherov's stickhandling display on his shootout winner, Nyffeler said: "He just made a couple of good moves. I don't know. I tried, but he made a good play."
"We need to play better and not make so many mistakes defensively," said Khokhlachyov. "We need to score on our chances."
Russian captain Nail Yakupov got an assist but was held goalless again. He has scored just one career World Junior goal, against Germany here in Ufa. Varnakov quipped: "He scored a lot of goals with the KHL's Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk in October, but now he’s out of practice."
Remarkably, it was Switzerland's second shootout and fourth straight loss in extra time at the 2013 World Juniors.
"It’s very tough for our players right now," said Swiss head coach Sean Simpson. "They played their hearts out. Normally when you play well enough to take Sweden, Finland, Czech Republic and Russia to overtime, things work out at least one time."
Switzerland’s top achievement at the World Juniors was 1998’s bronze medal. But even though it hasn’t replicated that success since then, its work ethic should also never be underestimated. That was proved again in front of a packed Ufa Arena.
But there wouldn’t be a repeat of 2010’s Swiss quarter-final upset, where Nino Nieddereiter’s two goals, including the OT winner, gave his nation a 4-3 win over Russia.
"It's clearly one of the most exciting games I've played in," said Bertschy. "You're not every day in a quarter-final of the World [Junior] Championship. Everybody was ready to play. We just didn't get the win."
The first period quickly became a parade to the penalty box.
On Russia’s first power play, Bertschy got a shorthanded breakaway around the five-minute mark. But Vasilevski did the splits, and the Swiss captain’s attempt drifted harmlessly past the post.
Moments later, Khokhlachyov gave Russia a 1-0 lead at 6:07 with a shot from the right faceoff circle that just squeezed over Nyffeler’s left pad.
But halfway through the period Bertschy exploited a terrible defensive breakdown – once again shorthanded – by the defensive pairing of Albert Yarullin and Nikita Nesterov to even the score. Setting up the Russian breakout, Yarullin handed the puck to Nesterov, who left a blind drop pass in front of his own net. Bertschy pounced, driving it over Vasilevski’s glove.
The Russians came calling but couldn’t convert after Switzerland’s Robin Leone went off for tripping at 13:26. Nyffeler was all over the place, making several good glove saves. and stacking the pads to stop a Grigorenko drive. The emotional Swiss netminder even gave Kirill Dyakov a glove in the face to show he didn’t like the Russian’s Sean Avery-like tactic of screening him while facing the goal.
Early in the second period, the Swiss got a 5-on-3 for 1:01 when Dyakov was sent off for more overenthusiastic Avery-like screening and Danil Zharkov got caught cross-checking in front of Vasilevski’s net. But the Russians weathered that storm.
"[The Russians] did that already in the exhibition game, and we already talked to the ref then," Bertschy said. "We talked to him during the break and he took [Dyakov] out."
Grigorenko made it 2-1 Russia at 9:06 when he accepted Nikita Kucherov’s pass in the slot and coolly lifted a backhander past Nyffeler.
Switzerland pulled back to 2-2 at 12:37 when Martin Ness charged to the front of the net, picked up the puck, and whirled to fling it through the kneeling Vasilevski’s legs.
Grigorenko continued to propel the Russian attack, putting one off the post from in tight during another power play. With just over two minutes left in the middle stanza, Andrighetto came down the left side and dented the iron himself, with the puck skittering along the goal line.
With a two-man advantage early in the third period, the Swiss were unable to capitalize as the Russians bore down hard in their own zone.
Just after a Swiss minor expired, Andrighetto busted into the Russian zone, and, following up on his blocked shot, zinged the rebound high into the net so fast that it bounced off the back bar without the goal light coming on. It was video-reviewed and proved to be good for a 3-2 Swiss lead with 11:03 remaining.
The Russians battled to find the equalizer in the dying minutes of the third period, but often fell into the trap of trying to do it all by themselves.
Vasilevski stopped Lukas Balmelli on the doorstep with two minutes left, giving his team a chance. Seconds later, the Russians thought they'd gotten the 3-3 marker, but it was reviewed and the net had come off before the puck crossed the goal line.
With 1:39 left, Kucherov finally tied it up on the power play with Guerra off for slashing, swiping a bouncing puck home from the bottom of the right faceoff circle. The crowd exploded.
"We needed our power play, and we scored on the power play," said Grigorenko.
The Russians came within a hair's breadth of winning it in regulation time when Kucherov tipped a center point shot off Nyffeler's right post just before the buzzer sounded.
Just 45 seconds into 4-on-4 overtime, Khokhlachyov was hauled down by Christian Marti in front of the Swiss net. The Russian power play didn't capitalize, and overtime would settle nothing. It was off to the shootout.
The Swiss won the right to shoot first, and it unfolded as follows (according to the IIHF game-winning shots procedure, in which three different shooters from each team take alternate shots until a decisive goal is scored – and if the game is still tied after three shots by each team, the GWS continues with a tie-break shootout by one player of each team, with the shooting order reversed):
Round 1: SUI, Richard – miss. RUS, Grigorenko - Nyffeler save.
Round 2: SUI, Bertschy – Vasilevski save. RUS, Yakupov – Nyfeller save.
Round 3: SUI, Andrighetto – Vasilevski save. RUS, Kucherov – post.
Round 4: RUS, Grigorenko - goal. SUI, Bertaggia - goal.
Round 5: RUS, Kucherov - goal. SUI, Bertaggia - Vasilevski save.
Russia played without forward Valeri Nichushkin, serving a one-game suspension for a hit from behind on Canada’s Tyler Wotherspoon on New Year’s Eve.
(Nathan can be reached at email@example.com)