Russia's power play shone for the second straight game in a 3-1 quarter-final win over Switzerland on Thursday. The Russians had gone scoreless with the man advantage until going 3-for-5 in their victory over Germany and 2-for-7 against the Swiss.
In the early game at Trinec's Werk Arena, Dmitri Voronkov scored both power-play goals and Alexander Khovanov had a goal and an assist for Russia, while Grigori Denisenko added a pair of assists. Gaetan Jobin replied for the Swiss.
"The only problem with our power play in the beginning was that we didn’t score," said Voronkov, a 2019 fourth-round pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets who plays for Ak Bars Kazan. "Other than that we didn’t have any issues."
Russia last won gold in 2011 and last medaled in 2019 (bronze). Their last quarter-final loss was 4-2 to the host Americans in Buffalo 2018.
The Swiss upset unbeaten Sweden 2-0 in last year’s quarter-final in Victoria en route to fourth place. In front of a Trinec crowd of 3,158, they were looking to pull off another surprise, but it was not to be. Although beating defending champion Finland 5-2 to end the round-robin was a worthy feat, getting Russia in the quarter-finals proved to be a poisoned chalice.
Swiss defenceman Mika Henauer sat out with an upper-body injury from the Finland game. However, fellow blueliner and four-time World Junior participant Nico Gross returned to action after missing two games, and forward Joel Salzgeber came back after a one-game absence.
"It was a little bit tough at the start, but I thought I came back well," said Gross. "I got my ice time and the team helped me as well. It just didn't work out in the end for us."
Russian coach Valeri Bragin gave netminder Yaroslav Askarov the start, even though the 17-year-old phenom, who dazzled in the U18 team’s silver-medal run in Ornskoldsvik in April, had a modest 2.51 GAA and 89.3 save percentage coming into this quarter-final. Askarov rewarded his coach's trust.
Swiss starting goalie Luca Hollenstein returned between the pipes after resting during the win over Finland, and couldn't be faulted on Russia's goals. Shots favoured Russia 36-15.
Russia broke through at 1:12 of the second period after Switzerland got caught with too many men on the ice. Denisenko, a 2019 World Junior all-star, sent a centre-point wrister on net that Hollenstein couldn't corral, and Voronkov coolly swivelled to bang in the rebound.
"Our coach said to shoot the puck more and score [from close range]," said Russian defenceman Yegor Zamula.
The Russians continued to press, and Hollenstein robbed Khovanov with a left-pad save. Yet Switzerland found the equalizer at 7:08. Off a faceoff end in the Russian end, Jobin got two cracks at it before whacking it past Askarov for his second goal of these World Juniors.
After a tight-checking stretch, Russia's lightning speed paid off. Khovanov blitzed through the neutral zone, fed Denisenko on the right side, and went to the net to tip in the return pass for the eventual winning goal at 14:07. Khovanov, a 2018 third-round pick of the Minnesota Wild, plays for the QMJHL's Moncton Wildcats.
On the power play, Voronkov made it 3-1 Russia with 1:47 left in the middle frame. Again he was perfectly positioned by the crease, deflecting in Khovanov's slap pass.
"We knew that we shouldn't be taking that many penalties, myself included," said Verboon, who was in the box for the 3-1 goal. "Especially two consecutive penalties like that, that kind of kills a team. Obviously they move the puck around very well and they have patience with the puck in front of the net. So we kind of screwed that one up."
Early in the third period, the Russians gave Switzerland a chance to get back into it as Vasili Podkolzin and Ilya Kruglov took consecutive penalties. Yet coach Thierry Paterini's boys couldn't get anything going. They took three of their total of seven minors in the last 10 minutes, killing their comeback hopes.
There would be no repeat of what Nino Niederreiter did in 2010. In a 3-2 quarter-final shocker over Russia, the Swiss forward scored the tying goal in the final minute of regulation and added the winner with just 14 seconds left in the 10-minute sudden-death period.
In fairness, although the Swiss are always the underdogs versus Russia, their confidence has grown at all levels since their very first upset 4-2 win over the Russians at the 1998 Worlds in Basel.
"It's always fun to spend a whole month with the same bunch of guys," Verboon said. "Everyone battled super-hard for the same reason. We were all searching for the same thing. I think based on last year, we knew that we could do something in this tournament. We showed in the preliminary round that we were capable of beating anyone and competing with anyone. Even tonight, with a few lucky bounces and getting a little better game from us, maybe we could have won."
However, it's Russia that moves on to the semi-finals in Ostrava in search of its ninth medal in 10 World Juniors. All-time, the Swiss have just one World Junior medal, 1998’s bronze.
Zamula said: "Right now, we just need to get a good rest and keep going for the next game. Slovakia or Canada, it doesn't matter."