CALGARY -- After building a seemingly insurmountable lead, the Russian Junior National Team went into survival mode on Tuesday en route to a heart-pounding 6-5 victory against Team Canada in the semifinal round of the 2012 World Junior Championship at Scotiabank Saddledome.
How excited was Russian captain Yevgeni Kuznetsov when asked if the victory proved, once and for all, that Russia is the better team?
"We just won and that question has become clear, so we're stronger than Canada," he said. "We're happy. I'm glad that Canada will not win gold this year."
Russia opened a 6-1 advantage 7:54 into the third period, only to have Canada storm back but ultimately fall one-goal short. It was an all-too familiar scenario for Canada, which once again paid the price for not playing a full 60 minutes against an aggressive and quick Russian squad. In the 2011 gold-medal match against the red machine, Canada yielded five third-period goals in an eventual 5-3 loss.
"We didn't play 60 minutes and you can't win games if you don't play 60 minutes," Canada captain Jaden Schwartz said. "We still didn't stop believing on the bench and thought we would tie it up, but we had a few good chances in the end and couldn't capitalize."
The triumph enables Russia to advance into Thursday's gold-medal game against Sweden, slated for 8 p.m. ET. Canada will play Finland in the bronze-medal game at 5:30 p.m. ET. It will mark the fifth final-round appearance for Russia in the last eight years.
Last year, the Russians won three straight elimination games against Finland, Sweden and Canada to claim its 13th World Junior gold -- four as Russia and nine as the Soviet Union. The club is on the brink of replicating that exact feat once again.
Russia's six-goal barrage came against a team that allowed a total of five goals in four previous WJC games.
Kuznetsov, named his team's player of the game, struck for the hat trick.
"I'm empty right now, I'm exhausted," Kuznetsov said through an interpreter. "All the emotions right now … I think we allow too many goals in the third period. I knew that the end of the game would be tough for us. I thought that the fourth and fifth goal would be enough."
Russian coach Valeri Bragin praised Kuznetsov, property of the Washington Capitals, at the end of the game.
"I thought he played the best game of this tournament so far," Bragin said through an interpreter. "He's our captain and our captain should play in the big games like that. He's an experienced player and I'm very happy with the way he played."
Not only did Russia receive an inspiring performance from Kuznetsov, but 2012 draft eligible prospect Nail Yakupov, who had four assists.
"We didn't finish strong, but we scored six goals and we beat Canada," Yakupov said. "Russia better than Canada … see you next time."
Nikita Kucherov gave Russia its 6-1 lead after stuffing home a rebound in the crease. At the time, the goal appeared to be double icing on the cake but, really, it would be the ultimate game-winner.
"We didn't get off to the start we had been getting off to in the tournament," Canada coach Don Hay said. "Maybe we were a little bit nervous to start with, but we didn't do the things we normally do. We usually drive pucks down the wall and get pucks to the net. I thought we didn't do a good job getting pucks in off the rush or a good job of traffic in front. Once we got traffic, we had more success."
Kucherov's goal and the large deficit failed to discourage the Canadians, who received goals from Dougie Hamilton and Schwartz, Canada's player of the game, in a span of 23 seconds to get the hometown crowd up on their feet once again.
Just 1:18 later, Brendan Gallagher redirected a shot from the point by Hamilton to pull Canada within 6-4. The margin was pared to 6-5 when defenseman Brandon Gormley lined a rope into the left corner of the cage from the point at 14:17. Bragin replaced starting goalie Andrei Vasilevski (44 saves) with Andrei Makarov following Gormley's haymaker. The decision proved critical as Makarov stopped all seven shots he faced to close out the contest.
Canada had pulled within 2-1 just 2:37 into the second on a delayed penalty call. After Jonathan Huberdeau was pulled down behind the Russian net, play continued before Brett Connolly hopped on the ice as the extra attacker. Connolly sped to the cage and ripped a shot from the left circle that beat Vasilevski on the short side.
"Canada was the best team in the tournament so far," Bragin said. "Maybe since they were practicing [and had the bye] and we were playing tough teams, we were prepared. I want to thank all my guys for the victory. I knew that in third period Canada would improve their game."
Kuznetsov then struck for two straight goals to extend the Russian lead to 4-1. His first was off a left circle blast that deflected off the stick of Canadian defender Ryan Murray at 4:24. His second of the period and third of the game was off a picturesque breakaway at 8:48. Following the fourth Russian goal, forward Yaroslav Kosov skated hard into goalie Scott Wedgewood, who remained on his knees for several minutes before finally being replaced by Mark Visentin.
Less than two minutes later, Alexander Khokhlachev was the recipient of a perfect pass from Kuznetsov at the 10:30 mark to extend the lead to 5-1. After circling behind the Canadian goal, Kuznetsov quickly fed Khokhlachev in the slot.
The Russians opened a 2-0 lead in the first on goals by Yevgeni Kuznetsov and Nikita Nesterov -- both goals deflected off Murray. Vasilevski turned aside 13 shots in the opening period. Kuznetsov's goal was started by Yakupov, who skated into the right circle before dishing to his captain at the left hash. Kuznetsov took a swipe and the puck deflected Murray past Scott Wedgewood at 7:26.
Nesterov's goal came on the power-play at the 13:50 mark. After Tanner Pearson was sent off for hooking, the Russians needed just 26 seconds to connect for their second goal. Grigori Zheldakov sent a cross-ice pass to Nesterov along the blue line and the Tampa Bay Lightning prospect ripped a shot into the net from the point that deflected off Murray on the way in.Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter: @mike_morreale
Author: Mike G. Morreale | NHL.com Staff Writer