- It seemed fitting that the last shot taken would prove to be the difference on Monday in the quarterfinal round of the 2012 World Junior Championship when the Russian National Junior Team scored a 2-1 overtime victory over the Czech Republic at Scotiabank Saddledome.
Defenseman Grigori Zheldakov took a feed from Nikita Kucherov
just above the left circle and uncorked a haymaker past Czech goalie Petr Mrazek
1:30 into the extra session to give the defending gold medalists their ninth straight WJC triumph over their heated rival.
Kucherov had just exited the penalty box after serving a high-sticking minor and skated into the left wing corner before dishing to an uncontested Zheldakov.
"It was a good pass from Kucherov … I looked at the goalie and decided to shoot on the blocker," Zheldakov said. "It was like it was scored. It was a difficult game. I tried to bring all my power and emotion into the shot and I scored. I hope the emotions from the win will help us against Canada.
"I think it's the best goal of my career so far."
While Zheldakov was notching the best goal of his career, Russian goalie Andrei Vasilevski was no doubt having the game of his life. Vasilevski turned aside 38 shots, including 17 in the third, to lead the Russians into a semifinal-round showdown with Team Canada on Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET.
"Our goalie played that way all the time, all tournament," Zheldakov said.
In addition to Vasilevski's heroics for Russia, Mrazek was also stellar behind 43 saves, including 19 in the third.
"We wanted more than a quarterfinal and that's disappointing for us," Mrazek said. "We have to figure out [Tuesday] what we're going to do. We were close and that's why were mad. It was a pretty good game for everybody on the team, but we lost so we can't talk about it being our best game."
Mrazek made, perhaps, his best save of the entire tournament 45 seconds into the third when he first stopped Yevgeni Kuznetsov's shot from the left circle before lunging backwards and getting the paddle of his stick on a rebound attempt by Alexander Khokhlachev
Kuznetsov, Russia's captain, was asked if he felt fortunate his team won the game.
"If you think we were lucky to win, than you didn't watch this game," he said.
Vasilevski stuffed Jakub Culek
with a right-pad stop off an uncontested one-timer from five feet away less than five minutes after Mrazek's paddle wizardry. With 8:02 remaining in regulation, Mrazek snared a quick shot from the left circle by Yaroslav Kosov
with his glove.
It was a battle between two goalies in a game that saw the teams combine for 84 shots.
"[Mrazek] played an excellent game," Zheldakov said. "He made a number of saves the first half, but you know … he's human. We were able to score on him in the overtime."
Said 2012 draft-eligible prospect Nail Yakupov of Russia: "Our goalie is better. We win."
After being outshot, 16-5, during a scoreless first period, the Czechs earned the territorial advantage for much of the second when each team connected for a goal. Russia pulled even on its third shot of the period when Danil Apalkov ripped a shot from the left circle that zipped over Mrazek's right pad at the 12:47 mark.
"I think we're more motivated because we want to repeat our success from last year," said Apalkov, referring to Russia's 5-3 victory over Canada in the 2011 WJC gold medal contest.
The Czechs opened a 1-0 lead 7:16 into the second when Tomas Hertl sent a nifty backhand pass across the crease to Jakub Culek
, who stuffed his attempt home past Vailevski. Petr Straka
barely missed giving the underdogs a two-goal lead midway through the second when his quick wrist shot from the right hash was denied by Vasilevski. The Russian goalie would then stop Daniel Krejci
less than a minute later on another left pad save off a backhander from in close.
Mrazek would atone for allowing his 12th goal in five games by stoning Apalkov on the doorstep with 3:18 remaining in the second and then Yaroslav Kosov
off a 2-on-1 with an incredible left-pad denial at the post a little over a minute later.
Mrazek turned aside 16 shots and survived a pair of breakaway attempts by Kuznetsov in the opening period. Mrazek, property of the Detroit Red Wings
, has yielded 13 goals on 177 shots in the tournament.
"Mrazek was good for the whole tournament … it would've been nice to win the game, not just for him but the whole country but it just didn't happen," Czech defenseman David Musil
said. "We did something that hasn't happened in the Czech Republic for a long time."
The Czechs entered this year's tournament coming off three straight seventh-place finishes at the WJC.
"There are plenty of positives," Musil said. "We played a good game against the U.S. [a 5-2 victory] and we haven't beaten them in a long time. But this is one of the key games and we lost it."
Kuznetsov broke free with 8:40 remaining in the first but Mrazek got a blocker on the shot. The Russian captain and lone returnee from last year's gold medal-winning team was sent in alone less than two minutes later only to have his backhand attempt from in tight skid across the crease with the goalie spread eagle in the paint.
"It's a really tough game but I think we hung on pretty good," Musil said. "We should've used the power play. We had a lot of power plays overall the whole tournament but we couldn't score and that was key."
Returning to the lineup for Russia following a one-game absence was Mikhail Grigorenko.
Grigorenko suffered an ankle injury on Thursday when he collided with Latvian defender Arturs Salija in the early stages of the second period of an eventual 14-0 victory. The 2012 draft-eligible forward entered the game having scored 2 goals and 4 points in three games for his country.
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter: @mike_morreale