UFA – Yes, bears do eat eagles. In the first clash of bona fide gold medal contenders at the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship, Russia edged the USA 2-1 on Friday night at Ufa Arena.
The winner came at 4:09 of the third period when 17-year-old forward Valeri Nichushkin took the puck end-to-end and Vladimir Tkachyov banged in a loose puck sitting in the crease.
Compared to previous tournament games, the speed and intensity were cranked up a notch, and it was evident that both teams were determined to deliver a passionate but generally clean game.
Albert Yarullin also scored for the Russians, and Jacob Trouba replied for the United States.
"Both teams played pretty well, competed hard, and got good goaltending," said Trouba. "We just came up a little short."
Russia’s five points leave it in second place in Group B behind Canada, while the Americans are third with three points.
In his first tournament start, Russian goaltender Andrei Makarov made 41 saves. His last World Junior appearance was in the 2012 gold medal game in Calgary, where he only conceded Sweden’s overtime winner by Mika Zibanejad on the 58th shot of the game.
"We played hard and everybody blocked shots for me," said Makarov. "I think we won as a team. We have a good locker room, and it’s appreciated for our fans to come to the rink [and support us]."
John Gibson started for the second straight game for the United States, and was very good again, recording 28 stops.
Russian captain Nail Yakupov went goalless against the USA, and remains goalless in his two-year World Junior career. Although he did earn an assist on the game's first goal, often the 18-year-old was guilty of trying to do too much by himself on fruitless solo rushes.
The Russians had several early defensive breakdowns and Makarov had to be sharp, including a brilliant, sliding left pad save on Jon Gaudreau in the second minute.
Yarullin, who notched the 3-2 overtime winner against Slovakia in Russia's opener, picked up where he left off. On Russia’s first power play of the night, he unleashed a huge one-timer from the left faceoff circle that went off Vince Trocheck’s stick and into the net at 2:42 for a 1-0 lead.
Gibson alertly got his glove on a dangerous Mikhail Grigorenko laser from the slot.
The Americans ran into more penalty trouble, taking three consecutive minors. But despite Russia’s ongoing pressure amid deafening chants of “Shaibu!”, the host team couldn’t cash in during the first period.
Danil Zharkov and Kirill Kapustin got a 2-on-0 breakaway near the three-minute mark of the second period. But even with Kapustin running a pick, Zharkov couldn’t beat Gibson with his attempt.
"The biggest thing about Russia is their transition [game]," said USA captain Jake McCabe. "Their defence had a big gap, and once they make that play, they’re up in the rush. They had a lot of odd-man breaks, and that was due to our turnovers, which can’t happen. We knew that going in."
A couple of minutes later, the USA’s Trocheck staged a brilliant end-to-end rush, but couldn’t finish it off as the puck bobbled off the crossbar.
Kirill Dyakov was sent off for tripping at 5:12, and early in the American power play, defenceman Pavel Koledov went down behind the goal line to Makarov’s left after taking a puck in the throat. He was helped off the ice in visible pain,but would return to action.
Gibson made sure his team stayed close, stoning Valeri Nichushkin from right in front halfway through the game.
The Americans tied it up with 6:42 left in the middle frame. Alex Galchenyuk, the son of the former Soviet and Belarusian national team player of the same name, fed Trouba nicely at the center point for a howitzer that blew through traffic past Makarov.
The spirited play continued unabated after Tkachyov's go-ahead goal in the final stanza.
Russian coach Mikhail Varnakov called a time out with 8:32 left and the Americans gunning for a comeback. It seemed to do the trick as the Russians managed to push the play into the USA's zone.
With 2:44 left, Gibson foiled Nikita Kucherov on a clearcut breakaway. But the USA just couldn't find the equalizer in the dying moments, even with Kapustin sent off for checking from behind with 1:32 remaining, and with Gibson pulled for an extra attacker.
"I’m very proud of the way our guys played," said American coach Phil Housley. "We were a bounce away from tying it up or taking the lead."
"In the third period, we played solid defence," said Varnakov. "Even at the end with the 6-on-4, we played well."
This rivalry has become much tighter in recent years than in the Soviet era, when the USSR almost always won. Although Russia has now won 20 games and lost just six, three of the American wins were in the six meetings prior to this tilt.
The biggest thing about Russia is their transition [game]. Their defence had a big gap, and once they make that play, they’re up in the rush. They had a lot of odd-man breaks, and that was due to our turnovers, which can’t happen. We knew that going in.