BUFFALO – Russia destroyed Finland’s hope for an all-Nordic semi-final. Being two goals down with four minutes left in regulation time, Yevgeni Kuznetsov showed all his magic to lead Russia to a 4-3 win at 6:44 of overtime. Russia will challenge Sweden in the first semi-finals tomorrow (3:30pm), an all-European affair, before the United States plays Canada (7:30pm) in the North American battle.
For most of the 60 minutes of regulation time fans at HSBC Arena saw two disciplined teams that didn’t allow each other lots of opportunities until the Finns took advantage in the middle period and seemed to be on their way to a classic Sweden-Finland semi-final encounter.
Only four minutes were left to play in the third period when Finland led 3-1, but some inspirational play from Traktor Chelyabinsk centre Yevgeni Kuznetsov changed the screenplay’s ending.
Kuznetsov created several scoring chances during the whole game, but he was without luck around the net until the very end of the game.
The Russians came to new life with 3:41 left in regulation time when Kuznetsov pushed the puck over the line on a power play with heavy traffic in front of Joni Ortio’s net.
The Russians seized the moment against a Finnish team that seemed to lose its focus and power at the end of the third period. Kuznetsov rushed from the blueline towards Finnish netminder Ortio and outplayed Vatanen with some fine stickhandling. After Ortio recovered, Maxim Kitsyn capitalized on the rebound to tie it up at three with 98 seconds left in the regulation time to force a ten-minute extra period played four skaters a side.
The game continued to move back and forth in overtime. Finland had a great scoring chance after three minutes, but Joonas Donskoi couldn’t score on Joel Armia’s side pass.
As the clock ran down, as more the teams seemed to wait patiently for the shootout, until the puck eventually went in with 3:16 left of the extra period.
Maxim Kitsyn battled for the puck at the side boards before passing to Kuznetsov, who shot the puck past Ortio into the top-right corner.
The Russian bench quickly emptied after the miraculous comeback orchestrated by Kuznetsov.
"It was a like a miracle tonight. We were a very lucky team," Kuznetsov said. "We played hard all game, but it was only at the end we got out goals. We didn't have many scoring chances for most for the game, but then I got a goal and everything changed."
The Finns hit rock bottom as everything seemed to be ready for the semis. Teemu Pulkkinen was the man of the match with one goal and an assist together with Ortio, who was like a wall for the Russians until late in the third period.
Russia had a 45-37 shot-on-goal advantage while the Finns had more shots in the first period, 17-13.
"I don't know what happened. We played so well for 55 minutes, and the last five minutes was a disaster," Pulkkinen said. "We kept going all game, playing how we wanted to. Then somehow they got their goals. We’re so disappointed now."
The start of the game was much less furious than the beginning. Not because the teams played poorly; they simply played so well defensively and showed plenty of discipline. There were no penalty calls in the first period. It became and end-to-end game with several shots for Ortio and for Russia’s Dmitri Shikin in the beginning, but the netminders were not really challenged for a long time, either.
Russia’s third defensive pair of Pivtsakin/Berdyukov had a shaky start and allowed two great chances after losing pucks, but Toni Rajala and Jaakko Turtiainen didn’t capitalize on these chances for an early lead.
The Russians had a chance of their own at 10:10 when Yuri Urychev’s shot from the blueline went through traffic – and into the net via Finnish defenceman Sami Vatanen.
However, Iiro Pakarinen attempted a wraparound after a blocked shot and passed in front of the net to Teemu Pulkkinen, who tied the score at 12:32.
The second period began with an exchange of penalties and power plays on both sides, but the teams did a good job on the penalty kill, not allowing dangerous scoring chances.
After 15 minutes of play in the middle stanza, Russia had an 8-3 shots-on-goal advantage and a post shot while Toni Rajala had the biggest opportunity on the other side when he was alone in front of Shikin after a long pass from Joel Armia, but his shot went wide the net.
With three minutes left, Ortio made some miraculous saves after a Sergei Kalinin shot including a stick save when Maxim Kitsyn tried to capitalize on a rebound. Soon after the faceoff, the puck went into the net on the other side with 2:34 left in the second period. After receiving the puck at the blueline, Julius Junttila defeated Shikin for the 2-1 lead.
The Finns took a two-man advantage into the last period and scored before the second penalty expired 2:24 into the period. After Pulkkinen didn’t get the puck past Shikin, he passed back from the end boards to Joonas Donskoi, who scored on his own rebound for the 3-1 lead.
Everybody seemed to be ready for a Nordic semi-final. Everybody but Kuznetsov, who had probably the best minutes of his young hockey career with two goals and an assist in the last 11 minutes of the game.
"We have no time to celebrate. We must get ready right away for Sweden," said his linemate Kitsyn, who also had three points (1+2). "We need to be more careful in that game, though. We made too many mistakes tonight."
Kuznetsov was looking forward to the next game 17 hours before the faceoff.
"I don’t think Sweden will have an advantage because we are a motivated team right now. We’ll bring our best game to the rink. The ’91-born players know this is their last tournament and will want to play their best," Kuznetsov said. "We had lots of chances in the first game we played against them and we’re a different team now."