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Russia defeats Sweden to advance to WJC final

by Mike G. Morreale

TORONTO -- Russia forward Alexander Sharov scored two goals and Igor Shesterkin made 26 saves to lead Russia to a 4-1 victory against Sweden in the semifinal round of the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship at Air Canada Centre on Sunday.

The victory assures Russia a third appearance in the gold medal game in the past five years. It last won gold at the 2011 WJC in Buffalo following a five-goal third period that led to a 5-3 victory against Canada. It was the country's first gold medal-winning effort since 2003 in Halifax and Sydney, Canada.

Russia coach Valeri Bragin, who considered this game his team's best defensive effort of the tournament, was asked after the game if this year's team compares to that resilient bunch he had in 2011.

"We will be in the final [Monday] so we'll see if they have heart," Bragin said.

The gold medal game is scheduled for Monday (8 p.m. ET; NHLN-US) in Toronto. Russia will play the winner of Canada-Slovakia. Sweden will play for bronze at 4 p.m. ET.

In what many believed would be a back-and-forth match between two of the top offensive teams in the tournament, Russia took away Sweden's speed through the neutral zone while shutting down their red-hot power play. Sweden, which entered the game having scored at least one power-play goal in every game, went 0-for-3 on Sunday.

Sweden defeated Russia 3-2 in the preliminary round in Group B of the 2015 WJC six days ago.

"We created a lot of chances in that preliminary round loss but couldn't score but when the game was more important, in a battle to reach the final, we were more offensive and scored," Shesterkin said. "We did [on Sunday] what we should have done in the preliminary round."

When Sweden did settle into the offensive zone, Russia packed it in to deny a clean shot on goal and forced the Swedes to work the perimeter.

"I think they were better than us in the first two periods," Sweden forward Adrian Kempe said. "We did not come out very good. They seemed to have a 3-on-2 against us on every shift. We played a little bit better in the third but it wasn't good enough.

"I am really frustrated. I know we can beat them and we can beat all the teams here. It's so frustrating to play that poorly."

Sweden, which had its five-game winning streak snapped, entered the game ranked second among 10 teams with 24 goals in the tournament. The Swedes were denied a fourth straight appearance in the gold medal game.

In addition to Sharov (2015 draft eligible), who gave Russia a 3-0 lead on a blast from between the circles off a turnover 1:31 into the third, forward Maxim Mamin and defenseman Ziat Paigin (2015 draft eligible) scored for Russia. Shesterkin (New York Rangers) made 13 saves in the third.

"Before the game the goalies thought there would be much more shots but I think the big reason we won was because players were blocking shots and did a great job," Shesterkin said. "I thank my teammates for making the difference."

Sweden pulled to within 3-1 in the third when Lucas Wallmark (Carolina Hurricanes) scored off a sensational individual effort, collecting a pass and skating through the crease before directing a shot between his legs and past Shesterkin at 11:30. Wallmark had a goal disallowed with 22.9 seconds left in regulation when teammate Jacob de la Rose (Montreal Canadiens) was called for goalie interference.

"We lost to a better team," Sweden coach Rikard Gronborg said. "I think they were well prepared and we tried everything to get some kind of spark. We needed to get more pucks on net with the hope of maybe getting a bounce but they did a good job shutting it down and they were in the shooting lanes the whole night so it was one of those games."

Mamin extended the lead to 4-1 when he buried a rebound at the right hash at 12:39. Ivan Fishenko took the initial shot from the left circle that Sweden goaltender Linus Soderstrom (27 saves) stopped but couldn't control. Gronborg opted to pull Soderstrom with 3:59 remaining in the third but Russia would not be denied.

Sweden had defeated Russia in 10 of the past 11 games at the WJC, all of which had been decided by one goal. Sweden defeated Russia 2-1 in the semifinals of the 2014 WJC. The last time Russia had a victory against Sweden was a 4-3 win in the semifinals in 2011.

"Everybody knows [what happened in 2011]," Russia forward Ivan Barbashev (St. Louis Blues) said. "Everybody was watching. It was just an unreal game for Russia. They had been losing 3-0 after second and they scored five goals; it was unreal. We have a pretty good team this year, we can beat anyone."

Russia opened a 2-0 lead in the second period on goals by Sharov and Paigin. Sharov finished a 3-on-2 breakout when he collected a pass from Anatoli Golyshev in the left circle and ripped a shot past Soderstrom high to the long side at 11:18.

"It was the question of scoring, so we got chances the first game and didn't score and this game we scored four goals and that's the reason we got the win," Sharov said. "In both games we thought that we would have an advantage."

Paigin then scored the first power-play goal of the tournament against Sweden in 19 tries when he took a pass from Rinat Valiev (Toronto Maple Leafs) at the top of the right circle and fired a shot past Soderstrom to the long side.

"It's an unreal feeling; I was ready for this all my life and I'm very excited," Valiev said. "I think we're playing like one team. That's the biggest important thing for us, trying to play physical and trying to play like one team and support each other."

Sweden entered the game with the tournament's best power-play, converting at 50 percent efficiency (12-of-24).

"It felt like we got shocked," Soderstrom said. "I think on our power play we just stood there waiting for them to do something. It felt like the entire game we were so passive and just watched the Russians do whatever they wanted to do."

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