Russia beat Switzerland 5-2 in the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship bronze medal game on Saturday, as world-class skill and opportunism won out over a never-say-die attitude.
In the early game in Vancouver, the underdog Swiss hung tough with the Russians till the end, but just couldn't come up with enough offence.
"Not a bad finish for a big tournament," said Russian captain Klim Kostin, who was the target of booing at Rogers Arena, but scored the eventual winner midway through the second period.
Kirill Slepets led the way with a hat trick, and Nikita Shashkov also scored for Russia.
"I don't think I was so good in the whole tournament, but in this game I was able to score three goals and help the team," said Slepets.
Valentin Nussbaumer and Yannick Bruschweiler replied for Switzerland, which outshot Russia 36-24.
"It was pretty surprising for us, but at the end, we're not going home with a medal and that's pretty disappointing," said Swiss defenceman Davyd Barandun.
Goalie Pyotr Kochetkov, who plays for the VHL's HK Ryazan and remains undrafted by an NHL club, made some fantastic saves to keep Russia ahead, honoring the number 20 on his jersey. It was made world-famous by IIHF Centennial All-Star Team member and Ice Hockey Federation of Russia president Vladislav Tretiak.
While coach Valeri Bragin’s team is disappointed about failing to win Russia's first gold since 2011, returning to the podium is a creditable achievement in itself. Russia medaled for seven straight years before finishing fifth in Buffalo last year.
"We had a meeting only with the guys," said assistant captain Dmitri Samorukov. "We talked about it. We tried to say something about what we should do today. And it worked, because we won."
With an assist, forward Grigori Denisenko took over the tournament points lead (4-5-9). Alexander Romanov's assist padded his lead as the top-scoring defenceman (1-7-8).
It was a good run in Vancouver and Victoria for the Swiss. They won their one and only bronze medal in 1998 in Helsinki, thanks principally to David Aebischer's great goaltending. This was the third time they’ve finished fourth after 2002 and 2010.
"It was our goal for the tournament that we wanted to reach the semi-finals," said Switzerland's Nico Gross. "But not just the semi-finals. We wanted to go further. We wanted to play for a medal. We're really disappointed we didn't get a medal."
With a solid but unremarkable-looking roster, Swiss coach Christian Wohlwend got his team to compete hard in every preliminary round game and upset Sweden 2-0 in the quarter-final. The Swiss can go home with their heads held high.
"I think we're getting better and better," Barandun added. "Our coaches are getting better. Every year, Switzerland's going to play on top."
At the end of the day, this bronze-medal score is about what most observers would have predicted after Russia lost 2-1 to the U.S. and Switzerland 6-1 to Finland in the semi-finals.
Slepets opened the scoring for Russia at 4:25. The Lokomotiv Yaroslavl forward got all kinds of time and space as he stickhandled off the right side boards and popped a forehand deke through Swiss starter Luca Hollenstein’s pads.
"He's pretty quick!" Samorukov said of Slepets with a smile. "I didn't know that. We talked about how he was going to score one-on-one with the goalie."
Two seconds after a Swiss man advantage ended, Shashkov scored high to the stick side on a 2-on-1 to make it 2-0 at 13:44.
The biggest Russian defensive breakdown of the first period saw Philipp Kurashev, Switzerland’s leading scorer with six goals, left alone in front of the net with under a minute left. However, Kochetkov denied him with a poke check that would have made Toronto Maple Leafs legend Johnny Bower proud.
"First period, terrible," said Wohlwend of the Swiss. "Terrible. I couldn't understand it, the whole coaching staff couldn't understand it. Such a great chance and we were sleeping. We played scared, we played slow with no courage and then, yeah, I had to get loud a little bit in the dressing room. Then it worked."
In the second period, Switzerland jacked up its urgency and got on the board at 4:54. The Russians unwisely left another Swiss forward, Nussbaumer, unguarded at the crease. He accepted defenceman Simon le Coultre's pass from the blue line, pivoted to the forehand and tucked it past Kochetkov.
The red-and-white, predominantly Canadian fans urged the underdogs on with chants of "Let's go Switzerland!", plus "Defence!" during a mid-game Russian power play.
Kostin, who issued an apology on social media for behaving disrespectfully after the semi-final loss to the U.S., tallied his third goal of the tournament from the slot to put his team up 3-1 at 12:53. The 19-year-old celebrated by plugging his ears.
"The crowd was booing the Russian team and me personally," Kostin said. "When I scored, it was automatic. I did it automatically, but I didn't want to offend anyone."
The Swiss refused to wilt. Less than three minutes later, Kochetkov made two stunning, Dominik Hasek-like saves in tight on Justin Sigrist, but the puck flew up in the air and Bruschweiler batted it in baseball-style to make it 3-2.
Commenting on his spectacular play, Kochetkov said: "After the CHL Canada-Russia series, the annual series in November, I received a boost of confidence that I could also be good at the international level." He had a superb 0.67 GAA and 97.8 save percentage versus the best of the WHL, OHL, and QMJHL.
Early in the third period, the Swiss kept coming, but Kochetkov barred the door. And Slepets, in a classic display of Russian opportunism, split the Swiss defence in the neutral zone for a breakaway and slid a backhander through Hollenstein's legs at 6:33.
Pavel Shen was a hero on New Year's Eve when he scored the winning goal against host Canada, but he had goat potential when he took a high-sticking double minor with under 10 minutes to play. Still, Kochetkov remained as impregnable as the Kremlin walls.
"We tried our best," said Gross. "It just didn't work out for us."
With Russia shorthanded, Slepets completed his hat trick into an empty net for his fifth goal of the tournament with 2:01 left.
"It feels pretty good," said Samorukov. "You win your last game, right? So it feels like gold. We can't find the words for it. You're family when you meet for two weeks, three weeks. It's unbelievable just to see guys and all this stuff. It's pretty special."
Including the Soviet period, this is the eleventh Russian World Junior bronze medal of all time.