A trio of Lightning prospects faced off against each other on Tuesday in the World Junior Championships semifinal game, with the chance to play for a gold medal on the line.
Nikita Kucherov and Nikita Nesterov, both selected by the Lightning in this past summer’s NHL Draft, each had a goal to help lift Russia to a 6-5 thrilling victory over fellow Bolts prospect Brett Connolly and Team Canada.
Russia will now face off in the championship game against Sweden on Thursday, and will attempt to repeat as champions of the tournament for the first time since 2003-04.
The victory also ended 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.
Connolly also had a goal in the game and is expected to rejoin the Lightning at the conclusion of the tournament, as Tampa Bay is currently in the midst of a three-game road trip north of the border in Canada.
Early on in the third period, what looked like a one-sided blowout quickly turned into a game in which it appeared Canada would make history.
Down 6-1 just 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 recent memory of the tournament.
Canada outshot the Russians 56-24 but couldn't find the back of the net early on, when it mattered most.
Russia, meanwhile, capitalized on nearly every chance.
Nesterov extended Russia’s lead to 2-0 in the first period after Washington Capitals prospect Yevgeni Kuznetsov opened the scoring seven and a half minutes into the first.
A goal by Connolly cut the deficit to one, but Kuznetsov went on to tally twice more in succession to complete his second hat trick of the tournament and put the Russians out to a 4-1 lead. Connolly’s goal served as a bit of redemption for the youngster, who moments earlier hit a post on a nice deflection.
After an additional Russian goal made it 5-1, Kucherov scored to extend the advantage even further. Four consecutive goals by Canada in a span of five minutes brought the team to within one of Russia with approximately six minutes to go, but solid goaltending down the stretch thwarted Canada’s incredible comeback.
"I don’t know how to explain it," said Connolly. "Last year this happened in the gold-medal game, and this year it’s the semi-finals. We were that close to tying it up, even though we didn’t play that well early.”