CALGARY – It’s on, baby! On Monday, Russia advanced to a World Junior semi-final clash with host Canada, defeating the Czech Republic 2-1 in a tense, tactical quarter-final. Grigori Zheldakov scored the overtime winner on a slapshot at 1:30 of overtime.
"Their goalie [Petr Mrazek] played a great game, but he is human," said Zheldakov. "This is a very emotional win, and it’s very emotional to score a goal like this."
The Czechs disputed the call because defenceman Daniel Krejci had gone down in a heap in the corner after taking an accidental high stick as Nikita Kucherov followed through on his shot. Kucherov then centered the puck from behind the goal line for Zheldakov's goal. But it was no use.
"The referee did not see the high stick in the corner and we were short a man," said Mrazek. "That did not help."
The Russians are now aiming to win a second straight gold medal for the first time since 2003. Despite having just one returning player in captain Yevgeni Kuznetsov, they’ve suffered only one loss in this tournament: 4-3 in overtime to Sweden in the Preliminary Round.
"We played hard and everyone is excited," said Russia's Nail Yakupov. "We look forward to playing Canada. It was a bit nervous 4-on-3 in overtime, but this is a great game to win, and now we are in the semi-finals."
If the last time Russia and Canada met in a semi-final provides any indication, fans in Calgary are in for a treat. In 2009 in Ottawa, the two hockey superpowers staged a see-saw battle that was arguably the most exciting game ever witnessed at the World Juniors, and Jordan Eberle scored the tying goal for Canada with 5.4 seconds left before winning it in the shootout.
Now the unbeaten, hard-charging Canadians will take on a Russian team that likely brings the best puck movement skills in the tournament. Some things never get old.
In regulation time, Jakob Culek scored for the Czech Republic, and Danil Apalkov replied for Russia.
"We played very well, but we did not score," said Culek. "This is a very bad game to lose."
It was a superb goaltending duel between two young sensations, Russia’s Andrei Vasilevski and the Czech Republic’s Petr Mrazek. Vasilevski is staking his claim as possibly the most outstanding goalie Russia has ever brought to the World Juniors. Russia outshot the Czechs 45-39.
It was Russia’s eighth consecutive victory over the Czechs at the U20 championship. The last Czech win was 1-0 in the 2000 gold medal game, decided by a game-winning shots competition.
The Czechs haven’t won a medal at this tournament since capturing bronze in 2005. The streak of futility will continue for another year, despite the hopeful signs the resilient 2012 squad showed.
Although Mrazek was forced to block a 2-on-1 attempt in the first minute, the Czechs initially did a good job of denying the Russians time and space with a tight-checking approach. But after Kuznetsov was hauled down in front of the Czech net, the dangerous Russian power play went to work, and Mrazek was kept busy.
With under seven minutes left in the first, the Russians missed a glorious opportunity. Kuznetsov took a stretch pass from Zheldakov, waltzed in alone on Mrazek, deked past the goalie’s pokecheck, and then stunningly shot the puck wide despite having a gaping net.
Late in the second period, Russian defenceman Igor Ozhiganov threw a big open-ice hit on Tomas Filippi, but took the worst of the collision. He eventually got up and made his way to the Russian bench, where a trainer applied an ice-pack to his neck.
Although shots favoured Russia 16-5 through 20 minutes, the Czech game plan was certainly on track with a 0-0 score.
Ozhiganov had recovered by the start of the second period to take an interference penalty on Czech assistant captain Dominik Uher next to the Russian net. Even though the Czechs couldn’t capitalize, they slowed the pace down, dictating the play, and nearly caught up in shots on goals.
"We talked in the dressing room after the first period because we didn't play well," said Mrazek. "We were much better after that. They didn't have any chances at the start of the second."
Seconds after Russia fired its first puck of the period at Mrazek, the Czechs grabbed a 1-0 lead at 7:16. Thomas Hertl fed Culek a cross-crease backhand pass, and he put it past Vasilevski’s outstretched left pad.
The Russians tied it up at 12:47 when Apalkov cruised into the Czech zone and unleashed a wicked wrister that glanced off Mrazek and whipped under the crossbar.
The tide turned in Russia’s favour after the goal, and they nearly went up a goal when Sergei Barbashev slickly fed Apalkov right in front of Mrazek, who blocked the attempt.
With a minute left in the middle frame, the Russians got a 2-on-1, and Apalkov outwaited sprawling defenceman Jiri Riha before sending a cross-ice feed to Yaroslav Kosov, but Mrazek stretched out to make a jaw-dropping save. The crowd chanted “Go Czechs Go!”
At the start of the third, the Russians had another sweet chance when Alexander Khokhlachev followed up on a Kuznetsov rebound and the puck just skittered wide through the Czech crease.
Vasilevski made a fantastic right pad save a few minutes when Jaskin took Hert’s centering pass from behind the goal line and unleashed it quickly. At the other end, Yakupov tested Mrazek from close range to no avail.
Near the 12-minute mark of the third, Mrazek got a huge ovation when he absolutely robbed Kosov off a faceoff in the Czech end, picking off a lightning shot with his glove. He stoned Russia again when a circling Khokhlachev deftly centered the puck from behind the net to Kuznetsov, who shot it into the kneeling goalie’s pads.
Filippi was foiled by a Grant Fuhr-like glove grab by Vasilevski with about two minutes left, and that got another big cheer.
Would either of these netminders ever break?
The Czechs got their big chance to solve Vasilevski with 47 seconds left before the buzzer when Kucherov was sent off for high-sticking. It turned into a 4-on-3 advantage during 4-on-4 sudden-death overtime. But Russia killed it off, and Kucherov got sweet vindication by setting up the winner after he got out of the box.
"Mrazek was great the whole tournament, and it would have been good to win this game for him and the Czech Republic and everyone back home," said defenceman David Musil.
The night wasn’t perfect for the Russians.
Apart from a 14-0 explosion versus Latvia in the Preliminary Round, the Russians have had difficulty getting their high-octane offence on track, and that remained true against the Czechs. They’ve scored three or fewer goals in four out of five games to date. They may well need more against Canada.
Russia’s Yakupov went goalless for the fifth straight game, a surprising statistic for the likely first overall selection in the 2012 NHL draft.
The Czechs will face neighbouring Slovakia in the fifth-place game on Wednesday night.