Sweden ends 31-year drought!

Zibanejad the OT hero as Russia’s defending champs fall

05.01.2012
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Scotia Bank Saddledome Calgary  Canada

Mika Zibanejad (#20) scores the winning goal in overtime on Russia's Andrei Makarov, giving Sweden its first World Junior gold since 1981. Photo: JC Pinheiro / HHOF-IIHF Images

CALGARY – Mika Zibanejad scored the magnificent overtime winner as Sweden earned its first World Junior gold medal since 1981 and second all-time with an 1-0 triumph over Russia on Thursday. The Swedes outshot Russia 58-17.

At 10:09 of the extra frame, Zibanejad exploded off right wing, taking advantage of a Nikita Kucherov giveaway, cutting past the Russian defence and knifing a high backhand past goalie Andrei Makarov. Set up by Patrik Nemeth, this was the fourth goal of the tournament for the 18-year-old Djurgården Stockholm forward, and he celebrated with ecstasy, casting away his gloves in the corner as his yellow-and-blue teammates mobbed him.

“I can’t describe the feeling,” said Zibanejad. “I jumped on the loose puck, and I took it to the backhand. At that moment, I felt I was in control. Of course, this is the biggest goal for me so far in my career.”

It was the sixth straight game in which the Swedes registered 40 or more shots on goal. They stuck to coach Roger Rönnberg’s game plan, and it paid off in spades with the biggest Swedish moment in international hockey since the senior-level “double gold” at the 2006 Olympics and IIHF World Championship.

“I can’t say enough about my players,” said Rönnberg, who was showered with Gatorade and tossed in the air by the Swedish players after he entered the victorious dressing room. “To be able to play like they did, outshooting [Russia] heavily but not scoring, shows incredible composure. This team has unbelievable character. It’s the best team I’ve ever coached.”

"It’s so amazing to win this, and I am so glad," said Max Friberg, who led the 2012 World Juniors with nine goals. "We believed in ourselves and it’s an awesome feeling. This is big for hockey in Sweden. It’s 31 years since we won. I hope they have a good party over there.

Outshot and outplayed all night, the mercurial Russians couldn’t turn up the temperature when it counted most and defend their title from Buffalo 2011. They seemed physically and emotionally spent after their heaven-and-hell 6-5 win over Canada in the semi-finals. During the post-game ceremonies, they declined to hang the silver medals around their necks.

"We spent many emotions against the Czechs and Canada and were a bit tired," said Russian head coach Valeri Bragin.

Bragin elected to go with Makarov in net even though rising star Andrei Vasilevski had started in five of Russia’s previous games.

However, the 17-year-old Vasilevski allowed all four goals in Sweden’s comeback 4-3 OT win over Russia in the round-robin. He surrendered another four in the third period of the 6-5 semi-final win over Canada, which factored into Bragin’s decision.

"Makarov showed a comprehensive performance in the last minutes against Canada," noted Bragin. "In the practice I saw that Vasilevski spent his energy in the last games and I decided to go with Makarov."

And Makarov’s performance in the final, unlike that of his teammates, couldn’t be criticized one iota.

The Russian goalie was busy from the start. Sweden carried the play, firing 12 shots on goal, including a dangerous tip by Joakim Nordström, before Russia got its first shot more than 12 minutes in.

The largely pro-Sweden crowd of 18,722 at the Saddledome roared when Tre Kronor defenceman Petter Granberg took down Russian captain Yevgeni Kuznetsov in the Swedish end. That roar got even louder when Kuznetsov, roundly jeered all night, was penalized for retaliating. Although the Swedes couldn’t make hay with that opening man advantage, it would be a frustrating night for Kuznetsov.

"It's nice [for me] to get the MVP, but it doesn't matter--we lost in the finals," said Kuznetsov, who was also chosen for the tournament all-star team.

Shots on goal were 17-3 Sweden through one, and Russia was fortunate to escape with a scoreless tie.

Tre Kronor continued to put pucks on Makarov early in the second. The Swedes got another power play at 5:39 when Russian blueliner Artyom Sergeyev cross-checked Joakim Nordström into the boards from behind, but could only get long-range shots on net. Grigori Zheldakov went off for holding at 11:43, but Makarov was still seeing the puck well, covering up on a Zibanejad zinger.

With 3:27 left in the middle frame, the Russians finally got a power play when Jeremy Boyce-Rotevall took Sergeyev heavily into the boards from behind, and was called for elbowing. But they couldn’t solve Sweden’s Johan Gustafsson, and the best chance went to Sweden shorthanded, when Johan Sundström cut into the slot and unleashed a shot that Makarov got with his left pad.

Unbelievably, the shots were now 41-4 Sweden through two. By registering a single shot in the middle frame, Russia narrowly avoided joining Belarus (2004) and Slovakia (2007) in the record book as the co-holder of the dubious record for least shots in a period (0).

"If we'd won, it would have been unfair according to the game events," admitted Kuznetsov.

"It became a mental game," said Rönnberg. "It’s amazing that players who are 16 to 19 can cope with this."

At 4:18 of the third, Sweden’s Rickard Rakell stripped Zheldakov of the puck in the Russian zone and busted in on Makarov, but couldn’t beat him with a forehand, and then bowled the goalie over. After receiving attention from the Russian trainer, Makarov stayed in the game.

Chants of “Let’s go, Sweden!” from the red-sweatered spectators resounded. "That was good," said Friberg. "I love Calgary."

At 8:44, Sweden's Ludvig Rensfeldt put the puck over the glass in his own zone and the Russians tried their luck again with the power play. Kuznetsov put a howitzer off the inside of the post. Makarov stopped Oscar Klefbom coming down the middle on a shorthanded 3-on-2 rush, and Nordström from the same spot a couple of minutes later.

Mikhail Naumenkov got his stick caught up in Zibanejad’s gear behind the Russian net, and the Swedes got a power play with 7:11 left in regulation. Makarov was still equal to the test, stopping Zibanejad from his favourite spot in the left faceoff circle. The Swedes called a timeout with 40 seconds left in the man advantage, but it accomplished nothing.

Gustafsson made a game-saving stop at 19:28. Kuznetsov burst down the left side and completed a whirling backhand pass to Nikita Gusev right in front, but Gusev couldn’t put it through the Swedish goalie, and it was off to overtime and Zibanejad’s heroics.

"We knew we were strong," said Friberg. "We had a couple of really tough games [against Russia and Finland previously]. I hope this is very big in Sweden and helps hockey. This is my top experience in hockey for sure."

"It’s great to win a tournament when you beat the defending champions," said Rakell. "I hope they make a stamp [in Sweden]."

Sweden’s all-time record versus Russia now stands at 12 wins, 21 losses, and 3 ties in 35 World Junior meetings with Russia (including the Soviet period).

"I liked the way our team played throughout the whole tournament," Kuznetsov said. "All the guys did great, but we lost the final. Life goes on. We have to win next time."

The last World Junior gold medal game to finish 1-0 was the Czech shootout win over Russia in 2000.

This marked the first occasion since 2001 that Canada did not appear in the final. However, the host Canadians, who haven’t earned gold since 2009, took some consolation from extending their World Junior medal-winning streak to 14 years with a 4-0 bronze medal victory over Finland.

Sweden, which has iced a World Junior team capable of gold for at least the last five years, has finally gotten the job done. It’s a delicious feeling for fans in Scandinavia’s largest country, which now boasts a new distinction beyond ABBA, Volvo, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

"It’s really important that we’re winning," said Rönnberg. "We have been close so often. Last year in Buffalo I think we played better hockey, but it’s not about playing nice hockey, it’s all about winning."

The Swedes will begin their defence of their crown in Ufa, Russia at the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship.

LUCAS AYKROYD
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