CALGARY – Last year, the Russians won three straight elimination games against Finland, Sweden, and Canada to claim World Junior gold. They must win three straight again in 2012. Starting with today’s quarter-final, the defending champs will face a traditional rival in the Czechs.
The Russians finished second in Group A, as they took a 3-0 first-period lead on Sweden but allowed their opponents to win 4-3 in overtime in the Preliminary Round finale. “I don’t think that we relaxed,” asserted Russian coach Valeri Bragin. “Sweden is a great team and they came out excited.”
To avoid giving their fans heart attacks, the Russians will aim to change one key element from 2011: their pattern of falling behind in elimination games and being forced to rally in OT as they did against Finland, in a shootout as they did against Sweden, or (most obviously) with five third-period goals as they did against Canada.
Theoretically, that shouldn’t be a problem versus the Czechs. The speedy, skillful Russians have scored almost twice as many goals as their quarter-final opponents (23 to 12) – although to keep that in perspective, 14 came against lowly Latvia, where captain Yevgeni Kuznetsov racked up all nine of his points so far.
But it’s not as if the 19-year-old Traktor Chelyabinsk star (the lone returnee from the 2011 champs) will have to do it all by himself. He’s got plenty of backup firepower in co-tournament points leader Nikita Gusev. Nail Yakupov, the projected #1 overall draft pick for the upcoming NHL draft, has the potential to break out at any time: the Sarnia Sting winger has shown flash and dash en route to five assists but no goals to date.
The Czechs must also be aware every time Alexander Khokhlachev (three goals), Nikita Kucherov (one goal, five assists), and Yaroslav Kosov (two goals, two assists). If Mikhail Grigorenko is ready to go today after suffering a lower-leg injury, the 17-year-old Quebec Remparts centre will make the Russians just that much scarier.
As if all that firepower didn’t present enough of a challenge for Czech coach Miroslav Prerost and his youthful charges, this year’s Russian team also has the back-end strength of a brown bear that likes to do squats. Defenceman Ildar Isangulov has delivered some of the tournament’s most crushing hits, while his colleagues Nikita Nesterov and Grigori Zheldakov are among the tournament plus-minus leaders (+7).
Best of all for the Russians, they have a goalie this year who looks like the real deal. Even 17-year-old Andrei Vasilevski surrendered four goals against Sweden, he was absolutely heroic as his team was outshot 55-26. Sporting a 1.31 GAA, Vasilevski’s save percentage of 96.8 is second only to that of Finland’s Sami Aittokallio. He’s technically sound, too, square to the shooter and not surrendering too many rebounds.
Is there any hope for the Czechs, then? There is, and Bragin made the main source of that hope explicit in one of his comments after the loss to Sweden: “They have a very good goalie.”
Petr Mrazek captured the attention of Edmonton fans with his fist-pumps after big saves and exuberant goal celebrations. But the 19-year-old Ottawa 67’s netminder has proven he’s not just about showmanship. During Group B play, Mrazek recorded 52 saves in a 5-2 win that sent the favoured Americans to relegation play, and even in a 5-0 loss to top-seeded Canada, he drew raves for his play.
Put simply, Mrazek must excel, or it’s highly likely Russia will advance. And what can we expect from the Czech skaters?
“We played them in the pre-tournament, and they play a very aggressive style, very different from what we’ve seen before,” said Bragin.
The Czechs, who have taken the most penalties thus far in Alberta, can’t afford to spend too much time in the sin bin against the tournament’s top-ranked power play. Russia is currently clicking at better than 45 percent. And since no Czech player has more than three goals – Tomas Filippi, Thomas Hertl, and Petr Holik – or three points, attempting to play run-and-gun against the Russians in this must-win situation would be like bungee jumping with a strand of dental floss.
“[The Russians] have a strong team, but if we play disciplined and don’t take many penalties or stupid penalties, if we play like a team, and hard, then we can win,” Mrazek said.
In the loss to Sweden, Russia showed that it’s potentially vulnerable to a strong push from a top-flight opponent. But in the end, unless Prerost’s squad gets some lucky bounces, odds are that Russia will hand the Czechs their eighth straight loss in head-to-head World Junior competition since 2000.