-- With a stunning display of individual brilliance Sunday night, Russian forward Evgeny Kuznetsov
not only authored one of the greatest comebacks in the history of the World Junior Championships, but willed his desperate country one step closer to a medal in the 2011 edition of the tournament.
With his team left for dead -- trailing by two goals to Finland with 3:41 left in regulation and being stymied by the brilliance of goalie Joni Ortio
-- Kuznetsov refused to capitulate, opting instead to fight almost singlehandedly what appeared to almost all to be a losing battle.
Yet, when Kuznetsov finished putting his stamp on the quarterfinal at HBSC Arena, the Russians were victorious, winning 4-3 in overtime -- on Kuznetsov's second goal in a 10-minute and 25-second span -- and celebrating the unlikeliest of all berths in Monday's semifinal against top-seeded Sweden.
"It's like a miracle," said Kuznetsov, property of the Washington Capitals
. "Today was like a miracle."
Which, it appears, makes Kuznetsov a miracle worker in this tournament.
Finnish goalie Joni Ortio
had spent almost 50 minutes sucking the life out of the Russians, stopping everything Russia threw his way after Yuri Urychev had opened the game's scoring with a seeing-eye slapper just after the 10-minute mark of the first.
But, with just 3:41 remaining in the contest -- and Russia's life in this tournament -- Kuznetsov put his Russian teammates onto his back and willed them to a more palatable result by instilling life in them with a power-play goal.
"I scored a garbage goal and then things turned well for our side," said Kuznetsov, a first-round pick in last year's Entry Draft. "We scored once and then everything goes fine."
So fine that 63 seconds after Kuznetsov scored, he earned the primary assist on the tying goal by Maxim Kitsyn
, which came off a goal-mouth scramble and appeared to actually be kicked in by a sprawling Finnish defenseman.
That goal forced overtime, which ended when Kuznetsov made a rush along the right boards before cutting in toward the circle and snapping a high wrister that found the final of the few chinks in Ortio's otherwise impenetrable armor. The goal came 6:44 into the 10-minute overtime and set off a wild celebration back in the Russian end of the ice.
Ortio finished with 41 saves and had stopped 35 of the first 37 shots he saw, but Kuznetsov's brilliance made that performance nothing more than a footnote. Russian goalie Dmitri Shikin finished with 34 saves, including 15 of 16 in the first period.
When it was over, Kuznetsov basically admitted he could not face the prospect of not claiming a medal at this year's edition of the World Juniors, his final appearance in the tournament. He was a member of the 2010 team that finished a disappointing sixth in Saskatchewan.
"I trained hard from the summer because one of the goals of the season was to get a medal in the world juniors because I am too tired of coming back after big tournaments and winning nothing," Kuznetsov said. "Everybody is laughing and criticizing us and I just want to win.
"Maybe in the hockey world maybe our team was not as respected as before and that's motivation for me and the guys."
Yet, while The Russians celebrated the unlikeliest of victories, the Finns tried to piece together what happened in a collapse that will certainly haunt every one of their players for a long time.
"I don't have any explanation," said Finnish forward Teemu Pulkkinenn, who scored the first of Finland's three-straight goals to seemingly take control of the game. Julius Junttila
and Joonas Donskoi
But, it was also Pulkkinen who was sitting in the penalty box -- for hooking -- when Kuznetsov scored the first of his two goals, jumpstarting the comeback.
"Last five minutes was a disaster and we lost again," Pulkkinen said. "I'm so disappointed. We just keep going, playing our own game and they had the goals -- that's it."
As a result, Finland is bounced from the tournament despite not losing in regulation. The Finns had three wins in pool play after a tournament-opening loss to the Americans, who won the pool and will play Canada in Monday's late semifinal.
Finnish captain Sami Vatanen
said the Finns still believed they could win Sunday's game -- even after blowing the late lead -- and play for the country's first medal in five years right up to the moment that Kuznetsov put the final exclamation point on his statement game.
"We trusted ourselves that we could win this," Vatanen said. "We were up 3-1 and scored three (straight) goals and we just couldn't score that overtime goal."
So, it is Russia that plays in the semifinal against Sweden, just 17 hours after one of the most dramatic victories in the country's rich hockey history.
But, the Russians are unbowed by the challenge that lies ahead, unconcerned by the short turnaround or the fact that Sweden has been idle since beating Canada on Friday afternoon. The fact that Sweden won the pool game by a 2-0 score on the back of a brilliant performance by goalie Robin Lehner
also is of little concern.
Instead, the Russians are focusing on what they accomplished Sunday night, not the middling performances that led up to it.
"It's a good feeling, but we have to forget as soon as possible because Sweden is the next day," Kitsyn said. "We need to play more carefully and need to concentrate on some things but are staff and coach will tell us before the game."