BERNE – No miracles for underdogs this time. Ilya Kovalchuk scored the winner with 12:38 left as Russia overcame a determined Belarusian squad 4-3 in the first-ever quarterfinal meeting between the two neighbouring nations.
The Russians advance to a semi-final meeting with the USA. Last year, Russia defeated the Finns 4-0 in the semi-finals.
The Belarusians gave the defending World Champions all they could handle through two periods.
But despite the fine play of Belarus goalie Andrei Mezin – the hero of the 2002 Olympic quarterfinal upset over Sweden – it just wasn't enough, as Russia outshot Belarus 32-22 en route to victory. The Russians weren't as happy with their netminding, substituting Alexander Eremenko for starter Ilya Bryzgalov to kick off the third period.
"We have two great goalies, but Ilya had a tough night tonight," said Russian defenceman Oleg Tverdovsky. "I'm not sure if the change shook the team up, but we played good defence in the third."
Vitali Proshkin, Vitali Atyushov, and Alexander Frolov had the other goals for Russia.
Showing leadership, captain Konstantin Koltsov and assistant captains Oleg Antonenko and Ruslan Salei replied for Belarus. Top team scorer Mikhail Grabovski added two assists.
Coming eighth, Belarus achieved its fifth straight top-10 finish since returning to the elite division in 2005, and its first top-eight finish since 2006's sixth place. The only previous time it came eighth was 1998.
Going in, the big question was how long the underdog Belarusians could keep it close. The Russians didn't exert themselves much in the early stages, and Sergei Demagin of Belarus hit the goal post on his team's first power play.
Midway through the period, Russia's pressure began to increase steadily. Mezin alertly gloved down a Tverdovsky one-timer and kicked out his left pad to foil Alexander Perezhogin during Russia's first man advantage.
But Glen Hanlon's team drew first blood at 2:39 of the second after some concentrated power play pressure, with Koltsov grabbing a rebound from a Ruslan Salei slapper and banging it home.
"When they scored first, it was kind of shocking to us," said Kovalchuk. "Our strategy was to score early and force them to attack."
It didn't take long for Russia to respond. Proshkin took a Kovalchuk pass and wristed a shot from above the left faceoff circle that eluded Mezin through traffic at 5:18.
Diligent defensive work saw Belarus weather a 4-on-3 Russian power play midway through the game, as the favourites couldn't set up Kovalchuk for the perfect one-timer they wanted.
Belarus jumped back into a 2-1 lead with 6:08 left in the period when Antonenko walked into the left faceoff circle and zinged a shot that squeaked through Bryzgalov's right arm. Was an upset brewing?
Not so fast. First, Atyushov's wrister through traffic from the right faceoff circle beat a screened Mezin on the blocker side at 16:39, and again the score was tied. Just 23 seconds later, Frolov whacked a rebound through the goalie's legs to put Russia ahead for the first time.
Yet undisciplined play set Russia off course. With Kovalchuk and Dmitri Kalinin off for slashing and interference respectively, Salei tied the score with a one-timer over Bryzgalov's glove at 19:38 of the second.
Russian coach Slava Bykov benched Bryzgalov to start the third period, and his team responded. Kovalchuk stickhandled into the Belarus zone at 7:22, swiftly cut to the middle, and slid a shot along the ice through Mezin's five-hole to make it 4-3.
"I think Kovalchuk fanned on his shot," said Mezin. "It went quite slowly and I was ready for a hard shot."
"I just tried to get into the middle of the ice and shoot," said Kovalchuk. "You can't score if you don't shoot."
It was the decisive moment, underlining how much Kovalchuk has meant to Team Russia 2009 with his consistently strong play. The superstar has been much better through seven games than he was at this stage in Quebec City last year.
Kovalchuk nearly gave Russia a two-goal edge when he feinted through defenceman Ivan Usenko and got Mezin down, but he put the puck off the goalie's left pad.
The Russians held on the rest of the way, with Eremenko coolly foiling Antonenko with a glove grab in the dying minutes. With 30 seconds left, Belarus pulled Mezin for the extra attacker, but to no avail.
"They played tight defense," said Tverdovsky about Belarus. "There were no surprises tonight. But we found a way to win."
On balance, it has to be considered a successful tournament for Belarus, which is bidding to host the 2014 IIHF World Championship, up against Hungary, Latvia, and Ukraine. A decision on the successful candidate will be taken at the IIHF Congress, which runs May 7 to 9.
"It's not a good feeling right now, but maybe tomorrow we'll feel better," Grabovski said of his team's tournament. "It's like the NHL. We're golfing now."
"The team keeps improving, and now we've earned respect," added Mezin. "Teams know every time we play them we can win."
The last World Championship meeting between these nations was a 3-2 shootout win for Russia on May 9, 2008, in Quebec City. Russia beat Belarus 7-2 for bronze at the 2002 Olympics.
Former Soviet national team coach Viktor Tikhonov, the winningest bench boss in international hockey history, got applause from the Russian-heavy crowd of 8,337 when he was shown on the Jumbotron midway through the game. So did Russian Hockey Federation president and former goalie legend Vladislav Tretiak.
It was impossible not to wonder what Tikhonov thought of Russia's third-period goaltending change, as he famously pulled Tretiak and put in Vladimir Myshkin after the first period of the USA's “Miracle on Ice” victory over the Soviet Union at the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid.