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It's Canada-Russia for Gold!

by Staff Writer / Washington Capitals

PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC - NHL goals leader Alexander Ovechkin notched a goal and an assist in his tournament debut, and Vadim Shipachyov and Yevgeni Malkin also scored for Russia in the final stanza.

"The first period we basically started out fine, but then we had two penalties and that changed the game a bit for the Americans," said Shipachyov. "It was tough, but luckily for us, Mozyakin scored a great goal."

The Russians have won four out of the last seven IIHF World Championships (2008, 2009, 2012, 2014) and are looking to repeat under head coach Oleg Znarok.

The Americans haven’t won this tournament since 1933. It is one of the longest droughts in international sports. The U.S.'s last medal was bronze in 2013, and previously, it came third in Prague in 2004.

"I think we really want to play [for bronze]," said U.S. goalie Connor Hellebuyck. "Any medal is a good medal. We want to make our country proud and get bronze."

The gold medal game will renew international hockey's most storied rivalry. The Russians would love some revenge after being forced to watch Canada celebrate its second straight Olympic gold last year – on Russian ice in Sochi. Undefeated and high-scoring Canada, meanwhile, is vying for its first World Championship title since Moscow 2007.

"It's always great in a final when Russia and Canada play," said Russian captain Ilya Kovalchuk. "It will be very interesting. I think it will be a very exciting game. I'm excited."

Canada and Russia last battled for gold in 2009, with Russia prevailing 2-1 in Berne, Switzerland.

On paper, the late semi-final at Prague's O2 Arena was a massive mismatch. The Russian roster included superstars who have won the NHL’s Hart, Art Ross, Rocket Richard, Calder, and Vezina Trophies. The Americans had none of the foregoing.

But coach Todd Richards' young, inexperienced squad deserves a tremendous amount of credit for keeping it tied through nearly two and a half periods on skill, team play and hard work. And the U.S. still has a shot at bronze against the host Czechs.

Of losing to Russia, 18-year-old Jack Eichel, the projected number two overall pick in the NHL draft, said: "I think we needed to bear down a bit. They capitalized on their chances tonight and that was the difference."

The Russian win sets up several intriguing head-to-head confrontations. Not only will Canadian captain Sidney Crosby now face his fellow Pittsburgh superstar Malkin for gold, but he’ll also be up against Ovechkin, long considered Crosby’s archrival for the title of the world’s best player.

To put this semi-final in perspective, Russian Olympic goalie and 2013 Vezina winner Bobrovski got his 35-save shutout versus Hellebuyck, a 21-year-old Winnipeg Jets prospect who just completed his rookie season with the AHL’s St. John IceCaps. Hellebucyk played well, recording 26 stops.

"It's clear that Seryozha [Bobrovski] is one of the best goalies at the moment," said Ovechkin. "It's almost impossible to score on him and today he showed his mastery and his class. He's one of the best goalies in the world."

Ovechkin, the captain of the Washington Capitals, recorded five goals and four assists in 14 playoff games, and flew over to help his country after losing Game Seven of the second round to the New York Rangers. The “Great 8” has now appeared at 11 IIHF World Championships since 2004, winning three gold medals (2008, 2012, 2014).

The superstar left winger started off on a line with Viktor Tikhonov, the 2014 tournament scoring leader, and Sergei Plotnikov.

The Russian offence took a long time to kick into gear, but it was too much for the Americans in the end.

At 7:43 of the third period, Mozyakin danced through the neutral zone with the puck, cut into the middle as he crossed the U.S. blue line, and zipped a wrister that beat Hellebuyck high to the glove side.

"I just got caught a little bit deep," said Hellebuyck. "If I was another foot outside the crease, I probably would have taken it off the shoulder. Mistakes are made, and you pay for them."

Less than three minutes later, Ovechkin pounced on a giveaway as American defenceman Justin Faulk fell down at his own blue line. Ovechkin evaded Torey Krug and whipped a wrister through the goalie's five-hole for a 2-0 lead.

With 4:32 remaining, Shipachyov banged in a rebound to make it 3-0. That inspired exuberant chants of "Molodtsy!"

Ovechkin generously handed off the puck to Malkin for the empty-netter at 18:35. Next stop: Canada, for gold.

Both goalies looked sharp in the scoreless first period. Hellebuyck stood his ground as Panarin came dangling in off the left side, and Bobrovski made a pad save when Jimmy Vesey was allowed to waltz across the front of the Russian net.

The largely pro-Russian crowd of 14,938 chanted “Rossiya!” and “Shaibu!” as Kovalchuk threw his weight around. In the final minute of the period, Malkin took the physical play too far, getting penalized for an elbow to the back of Eichel’s head after he and Nikolai Kulyomin had been foiled off the rush.

The Russians came in with 2015’s hottest power play, clicking at 37.5 percent, but couldn't get it to click on three tries.

In the second period, the U.S. came achingly close to taking the lead after a Vladimir Tarasenko giveaway, with Eichel getting two whacks at it and Anders Lee putting it out of play. Eichel and Vesey also came within a hair's-breadth of opening the scoring on subsequent chances.

"Everyone really played a good game and we had chances but weren’t able to bury them," said Eichel. "We all had good chances. Jimmy [Vesey], Larks [Dylan Larkin], and everyone was really going for a while."

Bobrovski made a stellar save early in the third, stoning Steve Moses, who set a new KHL goal-scoring record with 36 tallies for Jokerit Helsinki this season, from in tight.

"Overall it was a good effort, but obviously we're upset about the outcome," said Moses.

Historically, Russia has dominated the U.S. at the Worlds. Including the Soviet era, it's amassed a record of 35 wins, one tie, and six losses.

But don't forget: the young Americans beat Russia 4-2 in round-robin play on May 4. And in 2013, the U.S. ended Russia’s reign as World Champions with an 8-3 quarter-final thrashing.

So the Russians must be aware that there is no room for complacency against a far more formidable North American foe on Sunday. Canada has been the class of the 2015 tournament to date.

"Tomorrow will be a really hard game, said Bobrovski. "We need to rest well tonight, and tomorrow will be the most important game of our lives."

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