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Russia, Sweden set to battle for gold at world junior hockey championship

NHL.com @NHL

CALGARY - Russia will be hoping history repeats itself in the final of the world junior hockey championship, while Sweden is looking to end a long drought.

The Russians captured gold in Buffalo, N.Y., last year with a dramatic 5-3 comeback win over Canada. The Swedes, meanwhile, haven't won the tournament since 1981 in Fussen, Germany.

Sweden erased a two-goal deficit to beat Finland 3-2 in Tuesday's early semifinal, while Russia held off a hard-charging Canadian squad to win 6-5 in the late game.

"I think the Swedes are like us, gone through a great maturation, because they haven't won the world juniors in something like 30 years," Russian coach Valeri Bragin said through an interpreter Wednesday. "Before the finals, the chances are always 50-50. They have desire, we have desire, so the game will show who is stronger.

Russian forward Nail Yakupov had four assists in the win over Canada and combined with linemates Yevgeni Kuznetsov (three goals, one assist) and Alexander Khokhlachev (one goal, one assist) for 10 points.

"I'm pretty excited to play ... in the final," said Yakupov, a highly-touted NHL draft prospect who plays for the Ontario Hockey League's Sarnia Sting. "It's (the) last game in world juniors, so everybody want to win. I want to win this cup because I never win something like big tournament."

While Kuznetsov wasn't made available to talk with reporters after practice, Khokhlachev sang his captain's praises instead.

"He is playing great for us and he's one of our best players," said Khokhlachev, a second round draft pick of the Boston Bruins last year who plays for the OHL's Windsor Spitfires.

Kuznetsov leads all scorers at the tournament with six goals and seven assists through six games.

Swedish sniper Max Friberg is right behind him with a tournament leading nine goals to go with two assists in five games.

Friberg scored late in the semifinal against Finland to tie things up before adding the shootout winner.

When asked if he has another big game left in him, Friberg replied, "I hope Sweden does too, and I will do everything I can to be a part of it."

Already well known in his home country, Friberg will be given a hero's welcome if he can help lead Sweden to victory over Russia.

"We won one time in 31 years or so, so we really have nothing to lose," said Friberg, a fifth-round draft pick of the Anaheim Ducks in 2011. "I think we have a game where we can control the Russians. We skate a lot and we take care of the puck a lot. Every time we have the puck we try to do something with it, not just throw it away. Hopefully that will work (in the final)."

Sweden registered a 4-3 overtime win against Russia in preliminary-round action and captain Johan Larsson believes his squad can duplicate that performance.

"It was our goal to get to the final and now we're there, so now we go for the gold," Larsson said. "You have to believe it."

Swedish coach Roger Ronnberg said his team is on the verge of something special.

"It's not every year Sweden has this chance and we are going to do everything we can to win this one," Ronnberg said. "It's an experience of a lifetime for those kids to play in this environment in the full buildings and in front of people who know hockey, because the culture in Canada is so strong."

Although confident, Ronnberg added that the Swedes definitely have respect for the Russians and their skills.

"They are a really good hockey team," Ronnberg said. "We know we can beat them if we play our game in 60 minutes, but on the other hand we have to be aware because if the Russians are allowed to play their game like they were allowed in parts of the game against Canada they are a tremendous team with so much skill up front, you have to stop them. You can't give them so much ice."

Ronnberg confirmed that Johan Gustafsson will get the start in net for Sweden, but Bragin said he'd wait until Thursday to decide whether he'd go with Andrei Vasilevski or Andrei Makarov.

Vasilevski stopped 44-of-49 shots he faced against Canada before being replaced by Makarov, who turned aside all seven shots directed his way with the game hanging in the balance at 6-5.

"Concerning the goalies, we'll check their physical condition, how they feel, how they look during practice," Bragin said. "Vasilevski is only 17, there's big pressure on him both mentally and physically."

NOTES: Russian defenceman Ildar Isangulov will miss Thursday's final after being given a one-game supplementary suspension for a check to the head of Canada's Boone Jenner during Tuesday's semifinal. Jenner was also suspended for a game for spearing Kuznetsov after the play and will miss Canada's bronze-medal clash against Finland. ... Swedish defenceman Patrik Nemeth was filmed knocking over a Russian stacking doll with his stick after Wednesday's practice. A Swedish newspaper set up the photo to go with a preview story about Thursday's final.

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