STOCKHOLM – It wasn’t easy for top-seeded Russia versus Norway, but Zinetula Bilyaletdinov’s team finally put away the underdogs with a 5-2 victory to advance to Saturday’s semi-finals. Alexei Yemelin got the winner early in a three-goal third period for Russia.
In the semi-finals, the Russians will play the winner of the Finland-USA game.
"This team is as good as any I've played on," said Russia's Pavel Datsyuk. "Not only are we able to attack, but [we also] play good defence. We play together as a team and it shows in this tournament."
Powerhouse Russia won its sixth straight IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship quarter-final, while Norway suffered its third loss all-time in this situation. The Norwegians fell 8-2 to host Canada in 2008 and 4-1 to Finland last year.
Despite the loss, Norway has taken another big step forward as a hockey nation at this tournament, gaining respect for its prowess at both ends of the rink.
"We are proud of how we fought through the tournament," said Norway's Mats Trygg. "There is no shame in losing to these guys."
With the result, Russia’s all-time World Championship record against Norway dating back to 1954 improved to nine wins and zero losses. Russia beat Norway 4-2 in their earlier round-robin encounter.
Alexander Ovechkin, Alexander Popov, Nikolai Zherdev, and Ilya Nikulin also tallied for Russia, while Alexander Syomin added two assists. Tournament scoring leader Patrick Thoresen (7-11-18) had a goal and an assist, and Per-Åge Skrøder added a single for Norway.
Coming in from the NHL’s Washington Capitals, Ovechkin and Syomin made their tournament debuts, while Yevgeni Ketov was a healthy scratch. Defenceman Dmitri Kalinin sat out to complete his three-game ban for a dangerous cross-check on Sweden’s Johan Franzén.
Russian starting goalie Semyon Varlamov outdueled Norway’s Lars Haugen as Russia enjoyed a 45-21 edge in shots.
"[Norway] played not to make mistakes," said Datsyuk. "We were patient and got lots of shots. It was too bad we couldn't score more, but give them credit – they played well."
The never-say-die Norwegians entered this showdown on a four-game winning streak, while Russia had won seven straight in regulation.
Ovechkin had an immediate impact, shaking up Mathis Olimb with a heavy check in the Norwegian zone just a minute and a half in.
Ovechkin opened the scoring at 7:26 on a lucky play from behind the net, as he tried to center the puck on his backhand and it bounced in off Haugen’s leg. It was a promising start for the two-time NHL MVP, who went pointless in five appearances last year in Slovakia.
The Russians bottled up Norway in their own zone for long stretches, but Haugen remained alert, stoning Sergei Shirokov with a fabulous right pad save from close range.
At 11:33, the Norwegians made it 1-1 when Skrøder notched his fifth of the tournanment. Racing down on the rush, Thoresen fired wide of Varlamov’s right post, and the puck bounced out on the other side to Skrøder, who fired it in from a tough angle.
Encouraged, the Norwegians stepped up their physical play, as Marius Holtet hammered Yevgeni Biryukov behind the Russian net.
Unfazed, the Russians went up 2-1 with 5:51 left in the first period, as Popov took a long breakaway pass from Yemelin and snapped one high past Haugen’s blocker.
The Norwegians pushed back, with Jonas Holøs hammering one from the right faceoff with under two minutes left. They couldn’t equalize the score before the end of the period when Yevgeni Biryukov took a late slashing minor.
Just 28 seconds into the middle frame, however, Norway tied it up again, as Thoresen, standing in front, tipped home Morten Ask’s feed with a deft backhand touch.
"It was huge for us when we tied the game at 2-2," said Thoresen. "We didn't want to let the game get away. We needed to play it tight and frustrate them as much as possible and get under their skin. I think you could see that in the first two periods when they were slamming bench doors and their sticks against the glass."
When Ask was sent off for holding at 2:31, Russia’s best chance on its first power play of the game came when Nikulin pounded a drive off Haugen’s right post. A few minutes later, fellow blueliner Denis Denisov rang one off the opposite iron.
Although Norway took the next two penalties, their resilent defending kept Russia from clicking with the man advantage. Norwegian fans clustered in the lower bowl hopped up and down and sang with glee at seeing their team still alive, despite being outshot 15-4 in the second period.
The good times wouldn’t last for Norway, though.
Yemelin made it 3-2 Russia 55 seconds into the third, accepting a Pavel Datsyuk pass near the blueline, using Lars Erik Spets as a decoy, and floating a high one over Haugen’s glove.
The Norwegians kept on battling. Captain Ole-Kristian Tollefsen demolished Syomin with a big, clean hit along the side boards in Norway’s zone. A few minutes later, Haugen was there to deny Syomin when the Russian gunner attempted to finish off a broken 3-on-1 rush. Haugen shortly afterwards made a great glove save off Ovechkin from the right faceoff circle.
But now the Norwegians simply didn’t have any more tricks up their sleeves.
Haugen was helpless when Zherdev, stationed in the slot, beautifully tipped in a Biryukov point shot, putting Russia up 4-2 at 10:43.
"We thought the ref blew the whistle before the puck went in," said Trygg. "We thought it shouldn't have been a goal." Tollefsen smashed his stick at the bench in anger.
Any remaining hopes of a Norwegian comeback were dashed when Nikulin stepped in from the center point on the power play and zinged a wrister past Haugen with 5:08 left. Chants of “Rossiya!” from flag-waving Russian fans echoed as the clock counted down. Unlike in Helsinki, where Canada lost 4-3 to Slovakia, the top seed would survive here.
After the game, Russian Ice Hockey Federation president Vladislav Tretiak handed out the Player of the Game awards to Skrøder and Zherdev.
Norway’s three best players were also named: Jonas Holøs, Patrick Thoresen, and Lars Haugen.
"We've been going 110 per cent all tournament against opponents that have a lot of talent, and some of our guys got a lot of ice time," said Trygg. "We really didn't have the energy to come back in the third, but we got a few chances. We gave it our best."