Great goaltending and committed team defence can take you a long way. That isn't always Russia's formula for success, but Russia’s “sbornaya” withstood a stiff Czech test on Monday in Bratislava, prevailing 3-0 with a stellar shutout from Andrei Vasilevski.
"We were up against a good opponent, but we did what our coaches asked of us," said Vasilevski. "We played more on defence. It wasn’t a high-scoring game, but the main thing was that we won. The Czechs have several NHL players. They know how to wind you up, but our special teams were the best thing on the ice."
Sergei Andronov, Nikita Gusev, and Nikita Zaitsev scored for Russia, which leads Group B with three consecutive wins. Czech Republic goalie Patrik Bartosak also delivered quality saves as shots favored Russia 28-23.
Yet on balance, this was Vasilevski's showcase. The Russians haven't surrendered a goal since Jonas Holos scored with 2:13 left in the 5-2 win over Norway.
"A second shutout is really important for us," said Andronov, alluding to Alexander Georgiev's shutout versus Austria. "Andryukha was great. He kept us in it in those big moments. When the key moments come around, he makes the big saves."
A Vezina Trophy finalist for the second straight season and Best Goalie at the 2017 Worlds, Vasilevski struggled with a 3.83 GAA and 85.6 save percentage when his top-seeded Tampa Bay Lightning were swept in the first round of the NHL playoffs by Columbus. However, the 24-year-old is right on top of his game now.
"Our goalie was tremendous today," said Russian defenceman Mikhail Sergachyov. "Our defensive game was better than in the two other games."
The Russians also killed off four Czech man advantages with aplomb, which definitely contributed to the first Czech loss at these Worlds.
Czech forward Dominik Kubalik said of his team's power play woes: "Simple is the best, I would say, right now, because we're trying to find the other guys across, find the pass through four or five sticks. It's not working right now. So I think we should just use the defencemen and put the pucks to the net and just have everybody around."
Despite the amount of firepower on the ice, Russian-Czech confrontations sometimes turn into tactical chess matches. Even though the checking was tight, these teams were fired up. Various retired stars, like Lubomir Visnovsky, the second highest-scoring Slovak defenceman in NHL history after Zdeno Chara, showed up on the big video cube, and the Czech-heavy crowd of 9,085 roared.
At 13:02, Andronov opened the scoring, rushing into the high slot and one-timing Dina Khafizullin’s feed under Bartosak’s glove hand for his first of the tournament. The 29-year-old Andronov, the CSKA Moscow captain and a 2018 Olympic gold medalist, is playing his third consecutive Worlds.
With Yevgeni Malkin off for hooking late in the first period, the Czech power play went to work but had no luck. The Czechs have only scored once with the man advantage at this tournament, during the 7-2 romp over Norway."
Near the three-minute mark of the second-period, the Russians came within a hair’s-breadth of their second goal, with Kucherov powering in to push the puck under Bartosak’s right leg. However, defenceman Filip Hronek, who scored the first two goals against Norway, swept the puck out of the crease just before it could trickle in.
The Czechs were penalized for too many men on the ice, but both of the very talented and very expensive Russian power play units proved as ineffective as their opposition counterparts.
Alexander Ovechkin had multiple shot attempts that went nowhere. He has led the NHL in goals eight times, including this year’s 51-goal campaign with his Washington Capitals. Ovechkin, a three-time world champion in his thirteenth Worlds, went goalless in five games when the tournament debuted in Slovakia in 2011.
"It doesn’t matter who gets the goals," said Andronov. "The main thing is to keep winning."
"We first played together when we were six [at Moscow’s Belye Medvedi club]," Gusev said. "When you’ve known each other that long, you can understand each other’s game really well. To be honest, we should have scored on the previous shift but we got it right on the next one. The goalie didn’t quite get to it."
With under five minutes left in the middle frame, Vasilevski saved the day when Tampa teammate Mikhail Sergachyov made a bad giveaway in his own zone that Czech forward Dmitri Jaskin picked off. Jaskin sent veteran Jan Kovar in alone, but Vasilevski coolly made a blocker save.
"We didn’t see so many dangerous moments and if we made mistakes, Vasilevski bailed us out," said Russia's Dmitri Orlov. "He was terrific."
The Czech storm raged around Vasilevski's cage before the buzzer sounded, but the big goalie, who won Worlds gold in Belarus in 2014, proved good as gold.
"I think everybody knows that he's a great goalie," said Kubalik. "We didn't even give him a tough time. We were still standing around, not in front of him. So that's a problem too."
Nearing the six-minute mark of the third period, Tomas Zohorna launched a high backhander off Vasilevski's left post, and he and the Czech fans engaged in a premature celebration. Then during a mid-third period Czech man advantage, Vasilevski's quick left foot foiled Dominik Simon's bid to tip in a Jakub Voracek feed. The goalie was coming up bigger than the collected works of Tolstoy.
Things got chippy late in the game. Ivan Telegin shoved Hronek to the ice after a race for the puck in the Czech end and Hronek hacked his leg. Both got unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. You could feel the emotion.
From inside his own blue line, Zaitsev sealed the victory with an empty-netter with under a minute to play.
It was a good installment in a classic IIHF rivalry. En route to gold, the Russians also defeated the Czechs 3-0 in last year's Olympic semi-finals. The two sides have only met once in a World Championship final, with the Czechs pulling off a 2-1 upset against an Olympian-loaded Russian team in Cologne in 2010.
Next up, the Russians face Italy on Wednesday, while the Czechs battle Latvia on Thursday.
"There are no bad teams in this tournament," said Kubalik of Latvia. "So we've just got to prepare pretty well, because it's going to be a tough game. I'm actually excited!"