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Russia's comeback kids ready for gold medal game

by Bill Meltzer
The latest installment of the world's greatest hockey rivalry will unfold in Buffalo on Wednesday as Team Canada takes on Team Russia in the gold-medal game of the 2011 World Junior Championships.

Heading into the game, though, Russia is arguably the more relaxed of the two sides, knowing that it is playing with house money after having unexpectedly reached the final game.  Far from the old Soviet Union-era stereotype of stoic and impassive teams, this bunch is exuberant and almost carefree.

The Russians have already lost once to Canada in the tourney, dropping a 6-3 decision in their opening game on Dec. 26. After hanging tough for two periods, a three-goal Canadian onslaught in the third period was too much for Team Russia to handle. They were also shut out, 2-0, in a preliminary round meeting with Sweden. As a result, the Russians were -- at least statistically -- in danger of being forced to play in the dreaded relegation round, although they were prohibitive favorites against the weaker teams in their tournament bracket.

But, the Russian team has gotten stronger and stronger as the tournament has progressed. Team Russia has beaten with ease the opponents it was expected to beat (an 8-2 thrashing of Norway and 8-3 victory against the Czech Republic) and then pulled off late-game comebacks and subsequent overtime/shootout wins against Finland in the quarterfinals and Sweden in the semis to earn a return match with Canada for the gold medal.

In preparation for their gold-medal showdown with Canada, the Russians did not work on systems (breakouts, special teams, defensive coverage) and skating-oriented drills as would have been the norm in a bygone era. Instead, Russian coach Valeri Bragin rewarded his players with an opportunity to have a practice in which having fun and staying loose seemed to be the main objective. The players all got a chance to engage in odd-man rushes and breakaway drills, holding little competitions and laughing amongst themselves all the while.

The Russians' good mood is easy to understand.

Apart from their own expectations, they are under much less pressure for victory than the Canadians. The Russians know they are the underdogs, and are relishing the role. With Team USA having been sent to the bronze-medal game by Canada – and an already-huge rooting section for Team Canada at every match – the crowd will almost unanimously be behind the Canadians. While that would seemingly be an edge for Canada, it also serves as motivation and a source of unity for the other side.

The current version of Team Russia is an experienced bunch of junior players who have played together on national teams for several years. Although the World Juniors have historically been dominated by 19-year-olds, there has been an increasing trend for top teams to include not only a handful of 18-year-old players but sometimes even younger players on the roster.

Therefore, it is notable that all but one player on Team Russia is 19 years old.  The lone exception is 18-year-old Traktor Chelyabinsk forward Evgeny Kuznetsov, the Washington Capitals first-round pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft.

Kuznetsov, who spurred Russia's two-goal comeback against Finland in the final four minutes of regulation and then scored the game-winner in overtime, has more than earned his stripes in the tournament.  He has tallied 4 goals and 8 points.

Meanwhile, Novosibirsk forward Vladimir Tarasenko (the St. Louis Blues' first-round pick in the 2010 Entry Draft) has racked up 4 goals and 8 points, as Los Angeles Kings prospect Maxim Kitsyn of Novokuznetsk Metallurg. Washington Capitals defense prospect Dmitri Orlov (also a member of Novokuznetsk Metallurg) has compiled 8 assists and 9 points. 

In the semifinal against favored Team Sweden, the Russians got late-game heroics from Avangard Omsk forward Sergei Kalinin. The undrafted 19-year-old picked the best possible time to score his first goal of the tournament, tallying with 1:27 remaining in the regulation to tie the game at 3-3. After a scoreless overtime frame, Ak Bars Kazan center Denis Golubev (3 goals, 4 points in the tournament) scored in the third round against Robin Lehner to give the Russians the first and only goal of the shootout. When Anton Lander hit the goal post with the game's final shot, Russia's place in the gold-medal game was secure.

Russia has not fared well against Canada at the junior level in recent years.

The Canadians, who will be looking for their sixth WJC gold medal in the past seven years, won the earlier meeting in the tourney handily. Moreover, the “Super Series” and other non-WJC clashes between the two countries have usually gone Canada's way.

But Bragin says that his team will be well-prepared to battle the Canadians for 60 minutes or longer.

"In the final, it's a 50-50 chance for each team," he said Tuesday. "We have a positive attitude, and there's a strong atmosphere."

In order for Russia to pull off an upset, it will be critical for goaltender Dmitri Shikin (2.47 GAA, .929 save percentage) to continue his hot play. After Anaheim Ducks prospect Igor Bobkov was beaten for six goals in the first game against Canada, Bragin made a goaltending switch. Shikin has started each of the five games since the opener, winning four. He made 46 saves against Sweden, and was perfect in the shootout. The Russians will need a similar – or superior – performance from their goalkeeper against the Canadians.

Likewise, the Russians are banking on offensive contributions from their big guns, as well as a goal or two from their supporting cast. In the first meeting with Canada, Kitsyn staked the Russians to an early lead. Nikita Dvurechenski (2 goals, 5 points in the tournament) later knotted the game at 2-2 in the second period, and Lokomotiv Yaroslavl forward Danil Sobchenko tied the game at 3-3 late in the second period. The Russians will likely need for Tarasenko and/or Kuznetsov to find the net in the gold-medal game.

"We have a good locker room and guys helping each other and we showed that we can defeat any team. But it is always a battle against Canada at any level," defenseman Nikita Pivtsakin said.

Despite the third-period meltdown against Canada in the opener, the Russians came away with a lot of positives from which they could build. With a better performance in the closing period, they believe they could have won the game. In the second period, they established the comeback ability that would later serve them so well in the medal-round quarterfinals and semis. Even if Team Russia has to play from behind in the gold-medal game, they are fully confident in their ability to rally.
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