Monday, January 4, 2016

Russia heads to final

Russia has had its share of scares at these World Juniors, including a hair-raising 4-3 overtime win over lowly Denmark in the quarter-final. But that doesn't matter now.

Yegor Korshkov got the winner on a brilliant unassisted effort with 2:04 left in the second period. He faked a shot at the right point, performed a spinnerama, looped through the faceoff circle and cut in front to tuck the puck inside U.S. goalie Alex Nedeljkovic’s left post. It gave Korshkov his team-leading seventh point.

Against Finland, the swift-skating Russians will vie for their first gold medal since 2011 (Buffalo) and 14th of all-time, including the Soviet Union era. They took silver last year versus Canada.

The Americans will seek consolation in the bronze medal game versus Sweden. They have won bronze four times before (1986, 1992, 2007, 2011). It's a disappointing outcome for a squad loaded with NHL-drafted talent.

The U.S. has now lost five straight World Junior games to Russia, including its last two quarter-finals in 2014 and 2015. More shockingly, it has never won a medal round game against Russia since the IIHF began using the playoff system in 1996.

Pavel Kraskovski had the other goal for Russia.

Christian Dvorak scored for the Americans, who are out of the running for their first gold medal since the 2013 World Juniors in Ufa, Russia.

Hungry and determined at Helsinki's Hartwall Arena, Russia outshot the U.S. 33-27, making life hard on Nedeljkovic. Russian netminder Ilya Samsonov, a 2015 first-round pick of the Washington Capitals, shone in just his second start of the tournament after defeating Belarus 4-1 in round-robin play.

Valeri Bragin has now coached Russia at five World Juniors, and has made the final in every case, winning gold in 2011 against Canada. His other previous gold medal games were in 2005 (loss to Canada), 2012 (loss to Sweden), and 2015 (loss to Canada).

Looking much more focused than against Denmark, the Russians came out buzzing.

However, the U.S. struck first at 9:03. Sonny Milano zoomed down left wing and fed a perfect centering pass from the corner to an onrushing Dvorak, who tapped it in.

There were chances for the U.S. to pad its lead. Brock Boeser and Ryan Hitchcock narrowly missed making it a two-goal lead on an odd-man rush. Matthew Tkachuk rang one off the post from right in front.

Russia got a huge opportunity to get on the board with a two-man advantage with under five minutes left in the first period. But Nedeljkovic made a great paddle save on Alexander Polunin at the side of the net.

With Milano off for hooking midway through the second period, Nedeljkovic blocked Yegor Korshkov’s zinger from the right faceoff circle. Moments later, from the same spot, Kamenev rang one off the goalie’s left post.

Undeterred, the Russians kept pressing. Finally at 15:08, in a wild scrum, Kraskovski was able to bang in a rebound past the goalie’s right skate. The Russians jumped for joy as they embraced one another.

The Americans picked up their tempo in the third period, outshooting Russia 13-6, but couldn't find the equalizer despite receiving two man advantages. With two minutes left, they pulled Nedeljkovic for a sixth attacker. But it was to no avail.

The result also ends U.S. head coach Ron Wilson's quest for a World Junior crown. The former long-time NHL bench boss won the 1996 World Cup of Hockey, the 2010 Olympic silver medal, and the 1996 IIHF World Championship bronze medal.

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