BUFFALO – The European clash in the semi-finals is an encounter of the extremes. On one side the perfect-looking Swedes, on the other side the unpredictable Russians.
There was some tension in the air on January 30 in the small Dwyer Arena in Lewiston, out of the big spotlight of the HSBC Arena. The Russians were playing Norway. The underdogs tied up the score twice, making it 2-2 after one period with a meager 10-9 shot advantage for the Russians.
Before that, Russia had already lost to Canada (6-3) and Sweden (2-0) and no points in the standings. An embarrassment against Norway would have sent the proud nation into the relegation round battle for the first time in U20 history.
Finally, the Russians changed up, made it 3-2 after two periods and 8-2 by the end of the game. The Russians had another high-scoring game against the Czech Republic, 8-3. Within five periods, they left the relegation threat and made the final round.
And now they play for the medals after their miracle comeback in the quarterfinal game against Finland last night. It is one of the greatest comebacks in World Juniors history.
Down 3-1 with four minutes left in regulation time, Yevgeni Kuznetsov became the hero in the 4-3 overtime win with two goals (including the OT game winner) and one assist in the last 11 minutes of play.
Now, with less than 17 hours of rest, the Russians will play Sweden in the encounter of the extremes.
The “Juniorkronor” seem to be the favourite. The Swedish play has been close to perfection so far, despite affording some sloppy periods. The Swedes had the best defensive records in Group B, allowing only nine goals, while their offensive firepower wasn’t that impressive as the Canadians’, or the Russians’ in the end. Patience was the key in many of the Swedish wins.
Sweden seem to have one of the most complete teams. Complete enough to defeat Canada 6-5 in a shootout in the last preliminary-round game, destroying the local fans’ hopes for a North American gold medal rematch.
Most players are pure products from the Swedish hockey school that develops most European NHL-calibre players these days. Many of them play professional hockey, mostly in the country’s top men’s league, the Elitserien. Goalkeeper Robin Lehner plays pro for the AHL’s Binghamton Senators while Rickard Rakell from the OHL’s Plymouth Whalers is the only “real” junior player since Gabriel Landeskog’s injury.
Getting ice time in a men’s league, in one of the best leagues worldwide after the NHL, could be an advantage for the gold medal hopes. At least, it doesn’t seem to hurt the Swedish team not to count on players from the Canadian Hockey League.
The same can be said about the Russians with many KHL players on the line-up. Their only player in the CHL, Igor Bobkov, hasn’t played a game since allowing six goals against Canada on the opening day while Dmitri Shikin, who plays for St. Petersburg’s junior team, has had the best save percentage (92.48) of the semi-final goalkeepers so far, only behind the United States’ Jack Campbell.
While both nations do well by developing their best players at home and making them ready for international hockey or for the NHL in their professional leagues, they have not that much in common.
Sweden can trust on the abilities of four lines. No player has stood out significantly from the rest of the pack. Patrick Cehlin has collected five points (3+2) while Jesper Fasth and Carl Klingberg also scored three goals. Each of these players play in different lines and no Swede can be seen among the event’s top-ten scorers.
The Russians on the other hand heavily count on their inexperienced goalkeeper Shikin – there is no junior goalkeeper among the 23 KHL teams – and on the first two lines led by forwards Vladimir Tarasenko and Yevgeni Kuznetsov.
Tarasenko is Russia’s best playmaker and leads the first line in a, for Russian standards, uncommonly unselfish way. He was the difference maker against the Czechs and Norway, while the second line around Kuznetsov and Maxim Kitsyn turned the game against Finland.
Kuznetsov is the top-scoring European with eight points (4+4), only behind Canadian forwards Braydon Schenn and Ryan Ellis.
The three Russian players have in common that they get decent ice time in the KHL, and that they were not raised and do not play in fancy Moscow or St. Petersburg, but in the vast area of the Eastern Conference.
Sweden supposedly had the better preparation with two off days since the big win against Canada on New Year’s Eve, but the Russian’s don’t see it as a disadvantage to have played last night, being red hot after the comeback win against Finland.
“I don’t think Sweden will have an advantage because we are a motivated team right now,” said Kuznetsov. “We had lots of chances in the first game we played against them and we’re a different team now.”
Swedish coach Roger Rönnberg watched two periods of Russia’s game against Finland, and that didn’t change his opinion about the opponents: “The Russians are very unpredictable. They have very skilled forwards, who are good with the transition game. It will be our goal to keep them on the outside as they don’t like to play close to the boards.”
In the preliminary round, Sweden defeated Russia 2-0 with 38-30 shots on goal. It was the fourth straight win against Russia in the World U20 Championship, the last Russian win dating back to a 4-2 semi-final victory in 2007 on Swedish ice in Leksand.
Russia’s last gold dates back to two straight World U20 triumphs in 2002 and 2003 led by Igor Grigorenko, Yuri Trubachev, Alexander Frolov, and then-underager Alexander Ovechkin. Since the last gold the Russians won three silver medals and two bronze, and had a disappointing sixth-place finish last year.
Sweden’s last – and only – gold medal was in 1981. Between 1997 and 2007 the Swedes didn’t win any medal, but they have become Europe’s top nation of this event in the last three years, winning the silver in 2008 and 2009, followed by bronze in 2010.
Will the almost-perfect Swedish team continue its streak? Or will the sometimes shaky, sometimes spectacular Russian team continue to impress? We will see it in a few hours.
Sweden has to play without forward Gabriel Landeskog, who is out for the tournament due to a high-ankle injury, while top defenceman Adam Larsson will be back after missing yesterday’s practice due to a pulled groin.
“He wants to play badly,” said Rönnberg “It would take a lot for him to miss a game like that.”
Russian defenceman Nikita Zaitsev was on the line-up yesterday, but didn’t play because of an injured hand according to coach Valeri Bragin. He’s also questionable for today’s semi-final. “We will see how he feels before the game against Sweden,” Bragin said.
World U20 Championship a success in Sweden
Swedish television SVT has scored excellent ratings during the 2011 IIHF World U20 Championships. The December 30, Sweden vs. Czech Republic game on the main channel SVT1 drew 705,000 viewers in a country of nine million people. The New Year’s Eve game against Canada was broadcast on the news channel SVT24 and had an average of 350,000 viewers during a time when most New Year's parties were starting. After midnight, the viewership increased to 630.000 or 6 per cent of the population. These are numbers that SVT24 normally never reaches, apart from when it shows the World Juniors.