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Russia eyes repeat; Swedes seek to end gold drought

by Mike G. Morreale
CALGARY -- Russia and Sweden will renew acquaintances on a grand stage Thursday when the countries collide in the gold-medal game of the 2012 IIHF U-20 World Junior Championship at Scotiabank Saddledome.
The game, scheduled for 8 p.m. ET (NHLN-US, TSN), is an intriguing rematch between clubs that finished atop the Group A pool during preliminary-round competition.
On one side, players from Russia are ecstatic to be getting another shot against the only team to beat them this tournament. Sweden connected for three unanswered goals and outshot the Russians 22-4 in the third period on New Year’s Eve before Joakim Nordstrom sealed the comeback victory 2:44 into overtime.

"This is the biggest thing I've ever played in. It's a dream come true. We're going to do everything to win the gold medal." -- Sweden forward Rickard Rakell

In the other corner, Sweden is extremely confident heading into the rematch because, as Sebastian Collberg explained, "We have a psychological edge over them right now."
In what could be described as a little gamesmanship by Russian coach Valeri Bragin following his team's thrilling 6-5 victory against Canada in the tournament semifinal round Tuesday, the veteran mentor said that the Canadians were "the best team [his club had faced] in the tournament so far."
Russia has every right to talk, though. The team will be making its fifth final-round appearance in the past eight years. It claimed its 13th World Junior gold just last year -- it owns four as Russia and nine as the Soviet Union.
"Sweden is a very good team but we'll practice hard and be ready ... it starts 0-0 so we'll see who wins the championship," Russian forward Nail Yakupov said. "We're excited for this."
Russia has three players among the top 10 in scoring in the tournament, including leader Yevgeni Kuznetsov (six goals, 13 points), along with Nikita Gusev (three goals, nine points) and Nail Yakupov (nine assists, nine points).
"I think everybody has added something a little bit for the team but Yevgeni is our captain and he's the leader," Yakupov said. "The last game we play together, I do my work and he do his work. We move the puck quick and play and he gets the snipes."
Russia's top two lines against the Canadians had Alexander Khokhlachev with Yakupov and Kuznetsov and Gusev with Mikhail Grigorenko and Nikita Kucherov. Goalie Andrei Vasilevski was the hero (4-1, 2.01 goals-against average, .953 save percentage) against the Czech Republic in an overtime victory during the quarterfinal round. While Vasilevski did start against the Canadians, he gave way to Andrei Makarov (1-0, 0.91 GAA, .974 save percentage) late in the third. Makarov stopped all seven shots faced to preserve his country's 6-5 victory.
Bragin will name his starter Thursday. Vasilevski made 51 saves against Sweden in his team's preliminary-round loss.
Sweden, which hasn't celebrated a gold medal at the WJC since 1981, settled for silver in 2008 and 2009 and claimed bronze in 2010. The team met the Soviet Union three times in the gold medal match (1978, 1989 and 1992) and lost all three contests.
Head coach Roger Rönnberg knows how he wants his team to play against Russia.
"We want to control the game," he said. "We want to play our game and force other teams to make adjustments the way we play."
In addition to rallying for the victory over Russia, Sweden also scored a 3-2 shootout decision against Finland in the quarterfinal round Monday after connecting for two straight third-period goals to force overtime and eventually the shootout.
"This is the biggest thing I've ever played in," forward Rickard Rakell said. "It's a dream come true. We're going to do everything to win the gold medal."
Forward Max Friberg, who leads the team with nine goals and 11 points, was credited with a goal and one assist in the preliminary-round victory against Russia. Friberg also had the game-winner in the shootout win over Finland.
"We are strong mentally ... this team has good character," Friberg said. "We never stop until we're the winners. We never give up and it's confidence in the team. I'm real excited because it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity here to win a gold medal in the World Juniors."
Collberg is second on the team in scoring with seven points, including four goals, and there are three players tied with six points -- Ludvig Rensfeldt, Johan Larsson and Erik Thorell.
"It's amazing because this is my first World Juniors and now we're in the final and it feels great," Collberg said.
"This is so big," Larsson said. "To play a final in Canada ... it can't be bigger."
Goalies Johan Gustafsson (2-0, 2.80 GAA, .867 save percentage) and Anton Forsberg (1-0, 0.99 GAA, .933 save percentage) have split time between the pipes. Gustafsson earned the victory against Russia in the preliminary round match, turning aside 23 shots. He was also in goal when Sweden rallied to victory Monday against the Finns, turning back 22 shots.
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale
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