Despite being down early in the first period for only the second time in 2014 World Championship play, Russia roared back to defeat the defending champs.
Russia continued its determined path to the gold medal game, defeating Sweden 3-1. Despite going down a goal very early in the semi-final, Russia battled back as some of its best tournament players rose to the occasion.
Sergei Shirokov's goal proved the game winner and Anton Belov's insurance tally ensured Russia a place in tomorrow night's World Championship final at Minsk Arena. Russia will now face the winner of the Czech Republic-Finland game tonight.
They will be seeking the 27th gold medal in Soviet/Russian hockey history and their first title since 2012. Russia has won gold three times since 2008 and will bew looking to add a fourth.
Today's semi-final tilt featured both of Russia’s best players Yevgeni Malkin and Alexander Ovechkin in the lineup. Even with the dynamic duo, Russia would rely on its Kontinental Hockey League stars to lead the way offensively enabling Ovechkin to be held back after suffering an injury in the Preliminary Round.
"I had a new knee brace and felt much better," said Ovechkin, who saw about 14 minutes of action on the day. "I can’t say I am 100%, but the situation is such that one must be ready for anything. We have one game left and we must do everything to make sure we win."
Russia has played as a team throughout the tournament. The line chemistry is cearly demonstrated and goaltending a definite strength.
Head coach Oleg Znarok, who took over for Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, now heads to the finals in his first time leading the Russian national team.
Sergei Bobrovski and Anders Nilsson started in goal for their respective teams.
Coming off a 3-2 win in the quarter-final against host nation Belarus, Sweden looked to establish their attack early. They were successful, scoring in the first 19 seconds of the game. Mikael Backlund flipped a pass to Joakim Lindstrom, who connected with a pinpoint pass to Oscar Moller who went in all alone on Bobrovski to score five hole.
Moller has been exceptional for Sweden in this tournament. In this his first World Championship, Moller is near the top among Sweden’s scoring leaders. Not afraid to shoot the puck, he leads the team in shots on goal.
Sweden held off the Russians until Sergei Plotnikov drew this team even. Yevgeni Medvedev threw the puck on goal for a shot that Nilsson made a toe save on but left him off balance and with a big rebound going to Plotnikov. Plotnikov, who had all the time in the world, put the puck high into the empty net.
"We got off to a very good start, and it’s unfortunate that we didn’t build on that." Nilsson said. "I think they took over the game after that, and they were the better team throughout the whole game. It’s never fun losing, but we lost to a better team today."
The capacity crowd was decidedly for Russia, as they have been throughout the tournament.
Sergei Shirokov gave Russia the lead when he broke up a play in the neutral zone and took the puck into the Swedish end to score. Shirokov intercepted a pass intended for Gustav Nyquist and gained possession of the puck. He used defenceman Niclas Andersen as a screen on the shot. The goal was Shirokov’s third of the tournament.
The turning point in the second period occurred when Bobrovski stopped Moller from scoring. Behind the Russian goal, Mikael Backlund battled for a loose puck and sent it to Joakim Lindstrom, who found Moller in front for a shot that Bobrovski reacted to by stopping with his glove.
Instead of tying the game on that play, Sweden found itself instead down two goals when Anton Belov added an insurance goal in the second period to widen the lead. Danis Zaripov sent a shot on goal that was blocker saved by Nilsson but a rebound came to Belov whose slapshot went under Nilsson’s armpit and into the net.
"It was 100% (the key moment)," Viktor Tikhonov said. "If it weren’t for this save, we would’ve been still playing. He is carrying us right now, and if it weren’t for him, the games would’ve been much closer."
Sweden, looking to score, had chances but Bobrovski shut the door. Bobrovski has been outstanding. Seven wins and a goals against average of 1.00 doesn’t even begin to tell the story. On the day he stopped 22 of the 23 shots faced.
"I think, (Bobrovski) is the best player of the tournament and it is not an accident he is considered the best goalie in the NHL," Ovechkin said of his teammate. "No matter how we play he is always at his best and always carries us on. I think, he may be the MVP here."
Out of frustration late in the third, Backlund was called for charging on Plotnikov and given a game misconduct penalty.
After the penalty was called and before the game resumed, emotions ran high between the benches. Znarok engaged in an exchange of words and gestures with Swedish assistant coach Rikard Gronborg.
"The Swedish forward was out of order," said Znarok. "It's a great quality to be able to lose gracefully. Our team has character."
To understand how dominant Russia has been throughout this tournament is to look at the numbers. Nine consecutive wins, all in regulation. 34 goals scored to 8 surrendered to the opposition. They have only trailed in a game twice in the tournament and that was tonight when Moller scored their fifth game in the Preliminary Round when they were down 1-0 in the first period to Latvia.
Now Russia readies itself for a final game that will be eagerly anticipated.
Sweden is the defending champion but will now have to settle playing for the bronze medals tomorrow afternoon.
"I think right now it’s a tough loss, but at the same time, we’ve been here for a long time now," Nyquist said after the loss. "We’ve been here almost three weeks, and we’ve grown together as a group. We’ve had a lot of fun. When you’re here for this long, you don’t want to go home empty-handed."