With a 2-1 semi-final victory over the Russians on Friday, the U.S. guaranteed it will win a World Junior medal for the fourth consecutive year. Now the only question is, "What colour?"
The Americans will face the winner of the Finland-Switzerland semi-final in Saturday’s gold medal game."Two really competitive teams," said U.S. star Jack Hughes, who now has an assist in all three games he's played at this tournament after missing three games due to injury. "They both have a lot of skill. I know the Swiss play a really good game. They've been doing really well in this bracket over here. And obviously the Finns have a lot of high-end players, a lot of skill. It'll be an interesting game."
Alexander Chmelevski scored the eventual winner in the second period for the Americans, and Oliver Wahlstrom also tallied. Grigori Denisenko replied for Russia.
It was a fine goaltending duel between Russia's Pyotr Kochetkov and the U.S.'s Cayden Primeau, who entered this semi-final with the tournament's second-best and fifth-best GAA and save percentages respectively. Russia outshot the U.S. 36-27 and Primeau was named the U.S. player of the game.
"He's a pretty quiet guy, but he's a stone-cold killer!" said U.S. defenceman Phil Kemp. "He's seeing beach balls out there, and we're grateful to have him in the cage."
USA Hockey is on a roll. The U.S. earned bronze in 2016, gold in 2017, and bronze in 2018. The Americans have won gold four times in total, also including 2004, 2010, and 2013.
"It's huge for USA Hockey, but USA Hockey, we demand gold," said Kemp. "We want gold. We're here for gold. We're going to rest up, get back to the hotel, put our feet up, and get ready to go for tomorrow."
Meanwhile, the last time Russia won gold was 2011. Sparked offensively by Yevgeni Kuznetsov and Artemi Panarin, that Russian team, also coached by Valeri Bragin, scored five unanswered third-period goals to shock Canada 5-3.
It’s been a long drought for the proud Russians, who have won 13 gold medals (including the Soviet era) since the World Juniors kicked off in 1977. Their streak of seven consecutive medals was snapped last year when they finished fifth in Buffalo. They have won bronze three times this decade (2013, 2014, 2017).
It was an exciting and tense showdown between these two traditional sporting and geopolitical archrivals. The Rogers Arena crowd was vocal and appreciative, despite the disappointment of Canada's being eliminated by Finland in the quarter-finals. This is the first time Canada has ever failed to medal at a home-ice World Juniors.
Of the opportunity to win in Canada, tournament scoring leader Ryan Poehling said: "It's pretty special. Last time the Americans were on Canadian soil [in 2017], they ended up winning."
Russia, which carried the early play, had a couple of chances when defenceman Quinn Hughes, who averaged a team-high 22:02 of ice time entering this semi-final, turned the puck over twice on the same shift.
"I thought I was good today," Quinn Hughes said after the win. "Not my A game, but good enough. I don't think I need to be wearing a cape out here. Whatever it takes to win a gold medal."
The Russians thought they had opened the scoring at 7:47. Defenceman Dmitri Samorukov faked a shot at the left point and sent a hard pass to a totally unguarded Nikita Shaskov to Primeau’s right, and it went in off his right skate. The play was subjected to video review, and fans wearing Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin masks alternatively waved off the goal or pointed to centre ice. The officials ruled it was intentionally directed in and thus no goal.
"It was for sure my guy, so thank God!" Poehling said about the missed coverage on this scoring chance. "But I think after that I settled in quite well."
Coach Mike Hastings' team picked up its tempo and drew first blood at 14:29. Logan Cockerill cut around defenceman Ilya Morozov into the left faceoff circle and centered it to Wahlstrom, who fired his second goal of the tournament into the open side. Wahlstrom, a World Junior rookie, totalled 11 goals en route to U18 gold in 2017 and silver in 2018.
With 26 seconds left in the opening frame, Russia got the game’s first power play after a forechecking Jason Robertson hauled down Danil Zhuravlyov. Vitali Kravtsov shot the puck at Primeau from behind the goal line as the horn sounded and an irked Dylan Samberg retaliated with a high hit. Grigori Denisenko, Russia’s scoring leader, went after Samberg and coincidental minors ensued as emotions began to rise.
At 4:20 of the second period, the U.S. grabbed a 2-0 lead on the power play. The U.S. worked the puck around the zone, and captain Mikey Anderson sent it from the centre point to Jack Hughes in the right faceoff circle. Hughes found Chmelevski heading to the front of the net, and he slipped it through Kochetkov’s pads.
"I kind of found a way to feather it through to Sasha, and then he put it in the back of the net," said Hughes.
The U.S. was defending better now, but the Russians would demonstrate their traditional quick-strike capability. Denisenko cut the deficit to 2-1 at 13:36, coming down the right side and surprising Primeau with a bad-angle, short-side shot over the shoulder for his team-high fourth of these World Juniors.
Besieging the U.S. zone in the final minute of the second period, the Russians drew a penalty when Anderson was sent off for kneeing off a defensive-zone faceoff.
During the man advantage to start the third, Russian captain Klim Kostin's shot squeezed through Primeau and nearly trickled in, but Kemp swept it away in the nick of time. Showing his frustration afterwards, Kostin checked Anderson almost right into the U.S. bench.
"Pretty ugly play, but I'll do whatever it takes to keep it out of our cage," Kemp said. "To be honest, I wasn't really thinking. It was just instinct. I don't know if it was from practice or muscle memory or something."
"Especially going into the third period, we knew they were going to give a push," Primeau added. "Especially on their power play, we knew if we killed that off, then we'd halt their momentum for a bit."
Halfway through the third period, Kochetkov, lying on his side, made a stellar stick save with Poehling looming on the doorstep. As the clock counted down, the U.S. frequently found itself hemmed in by the aggressive Russians. But Bragin's boys couldn't get anything going at the end, even when Kochetkov went off for the extra attacker, and it'll be bronze at best for them.
The Americans hope they can finish off the 2010's in golden style.
"Playing in the World Juniors, winning a gold medal, I mean, that's every little boy's dream," said Jack Hughes.