Rodion Amirov scored twice, including the shootout winner, to lift Russia to a hard-fought 3-2 semi-final victory over the U.S. on Saturday. Russia advances to the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship gold medal game.
Amirov, who leads Russia with seven points, stickhandled toward U.S. goalie Spencer Knight and beat him with a quick forehander on the stick side for the lone shootout goal.
"This is a huge accomplishment for Russian hockey and for us as a team," said Russian captain Vasili Podkolzin. "I think going into the final game, our mindset will be the same as preparing for the quarter-finals and semi-finals. We're going to play our game."
The Russians are going for their first gold medal since 2007. They will face the winner of the Canada-Sweden semi-final on Sunday. The win also guarantees them their best finish since 2009's silver.
U.S. sniper Cole Caufield got two goals early in the third period, tying Alexander Ovechkin's single-tournament goals record (14). But that won't mean much to him, captain Jack Hughes, or coach John Wroblewski's other disappointed American players at this point.
"Those kids' hearts are carved up into hundreds of pieces right now," said Wroblewski. "To be in that locker room was very difficult after I've seen them grow up from boys into strong young men"
"It's tough, but we've got a bronze medal game to play tomorrow," said Hughes. "So we've got to go try to win that."
The Americans fell short in their quest for their eighth U18 gold medal in 11 years. They can still extend their record medal streak at this tournament to 16 straight years by winning bronze.Shots on goal favoured the U.S. 42-34. Hughes gave credit to Russian goalie Yaroslav Askarov: "Goalie played well. He kind of stood on his head tonight."
Coverage was tight and play choppy in the early going, with no one willing to concede in the one-on-one battles. However, the Russians took seven minors in the first two periods, playing with fire against the tournament-leading U.S. power play.
Amirov broke a scoreless tie with 1:36 left in the second period on an opportunistic shorthanded play. Off the faceoff in the Russian end, Amirov cleared the puck down the ice. Dmitri Sheshin bodied Hughes off the puck behind the net and then sent it across to Amirov, who beat Knight to the stick side
The U.S. struck back just 12 seconds into the third period, and Hughes atoned for his error. He sifted into the Russian zone and found Caufield in the right faceoff circle. He hesitated, luring defender Nikolai Burenov to go down before zinging the puck past Askarov and under the cross bar.
"It was a pretty good first shift," Caufield said. "We got that tie game back. Obviously it just sucks right now that we couldn't get it done. But we did give it everything we got."
This was the longest this U.S. team has taken to score since Caufield’s first of the tournament in the 6-1 opening win over Sweden.
Just 3:04 later, a cunning Caufield made it 2-1 with his record-tying fourteenth goal. Staying low-key, he moved in from the left boards and was perfectly positioned to gobble up the bounce from Case McCarthy's long shot and put it high past Askarov.
Russia didn't cave in. At 7:27, Semyon Chistyakov moved to the centre point and beat Knight with a long shot through traffic for a 2-2 tie.
"Cole Caufield and Jack Hughes are very good players," said Podkolzin, another likely top-10 NHL draft choice, who has been limited to two assists in these U18 Worlds. "They're going to play in the NHL in a short time, without a doubt. Maybe we don't have such big stars in our team, but we are a team, definitely. And we just played our hockey. Our discipline prevailed over the class of their players. That's it."
With 4:26 left, the Russian power play had a glorious chance to end this game. Mathew Beniers was sent off for tripping, with the Russians firing bullets and U.S. players frantically blocking shots.
Early in overtime, Knight came up big when Maxim Groshev broke in off a U.S. turnover and knifed a backhander on net. He stoned Groshev again a couple of minutes later. And Hughes came within a hair's breadth of ending it when he put one off the cross bar with the Russians killing a penalty for too many men on the ice to finish off the sudden-death frame.
"It went to a shootout," Hughes said. "In another minute, we would have won it in OT. So, I mean, I don't know. They beat us and that's it."
Close only counts in horseshoes. Not in hockey.
Caufield and Hughes now both have 17 points, topping Phil Kessel's 2005 American single-tournament record (16) and putting them four behind Nikita Kucherov's 2011 tournament record (21).
The Russians played a gritty game to pull off what must be regarded as an upset. For instance, in the second period, Podkolzin stayed in the game after a painful shot-block that saw him icing his hand on the bench.
Asked about how Russia shut down the Americans, Podkolzin joked: "Well, I'll try to keep it a secret! But obviously we were trying to play tight and keep them in the middle."
The U.S. ousted Russia in last year’s playoffs (5-1 in the Chelyabinsk quarter-final), but this is some sweet revenge for the Motherland on Swedish ice.
"Obviously coming up short is just a really big disappointment," said Caufield. "But we do have a game tomorrow. We've got to represent our country in a good way. We've got to come out with a medal."