Grigorenko sinks Czechs at the last
by Andy Potts|21 MAY 2021
Mikhail Grigorenko celebrates after scoring the game-winning goal for Russia.
photo: Chris Tanouye / HHOF-IIHF Images
ROC snatched a dramatic victory in its opening game of the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship. Mikhail Grigorenko snapped a 3-3 tie with just 19 seconds left on the clock at the Olympic Sports Centre. The game seemed to be destined for overtime after Artyom Zub inadvertently deflected a Dominik Kubalik shot past his own goalie to bring the Czech Republic level in the 57th minute.

But late in the game ROC wiped out that misfortune when Ivan Provorov's long pass released Grigorenko down the left channel. The Czechs, caught making the change, could not close down the Russian forward and he advanced to the face-off spot before wiring a wrister over the shoulder of Simon Hrubec to secure an opening-day win for Valeri Bragin’s team.

However, Grigorenko might have been the last man in the arena to realize that he found the net. “The Czechs went to make the change, Provorov picked me out and I skated into the zone and fired at the far corner,” Grigorenko said. “I didn’t even realize that I’d scored – I heard the puck ding off the bar and thought it went out of play, but everyone skated over to congratulate me.”

Dominik Kubalik, who thought he had taken us into overtime, admitted that the late goal hurt. "It was a tough game and a tough way to lose," he said. "We've just got to flush it out as quickly as possible because we've got another game tomorrow."

This game was a repeat of the bronze medal match-up from two years ago, and the opening Group A encounter was hotly-anticipated. Less than a week ago, the Czech media hailed a ‘perfect dress rehearsal’ after their team won 4-0 in Prague, but on opening night in Riga it was the ROC team, who got their lines just right.
ROC vs Czech Republic - 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship
ROC CZE 21 MAY 2021
The Czechs made a confident start to the game, only to come unstuck on the first power play of the championship. It started when Emil Galimov got clear of the Czech defence and was hauled back by Filip Hronek. The Detroit Red Wing didn’t think much of that call and his mood was not improved as the Russian PP set up camp in front of Simon Hrubec’s net. Two minutes of pressure paid off when Anton Burdasov’s snipe from the top of the left-hand circle found the top corner to open the scoring. Ivan Morozov and Mikhail Grigorenko collected the helpers after some characteristic Russian passing unpicked the Czech PK.

However, the lead was short-lived. During that ‘dress rehearsal’ last week, there were question marks over ROC’s goaltending and the Czechs tied the game here with help from another unconvincing moment involving Alexander Samonov. The Czechs forced a turnover on the blue line, with Michael Spacek stealing the puck and releasing Jakub Flek. That sparked a two-on-one rush and Flek took on the shot himself. It should have been comfortable for Samonov, but the SKA St. Petersburg goalie somehow allowed the puck to squeeze under his right arm and dribble into the net. 

Despite that uncertain start, though, Samonov delivered a 'W' on his World Championship debut, and earned the acclaim of his team-mates. Head coach Bragin said: "Alexander played a good game. He allowed three goals but he made some big saves as well.

"We worked with him all year and he got great experience of international play, so we were happy to start with him."

An even first period ended locked at 1-1, and the middle stanza continued in similar vein. Both teams had a good share of possession but clear-cut chances were few. Then the Czechs got their first power play chance late in the second period – and duly allowed the first short-handed goal of the tournament. ROC forced a turnover on the blue line and Vladislav Kamenev carried the puck deep into Czech territory. The SKA forward seemed poised to shoot but, instead, threaded a pass between Hronek’s skates for his clubmate Artyom Shvets-Rogovoi to open his World Championship account.

Once again, the lead was short-lived. A couple of minutes later, Libor Hajek won possession on the boards, Dominik Kubalik picked out a beautiful pass from blue line to blue line and Jakub Vrana went straight through on Samonov’s net to tie the game unmolested by any Russian defence.

"It's just exciting [playing with Vrana]," Kubalik added. "It's nice. We're pretty much the same kind of player so hopefully we can help the team win."

Unusually at the Worlds, ROC’s roster is light on NHL forwards. But one of them, Alexander Barabanov, restored the Red Machine’s lead early in the third period. The opportunity seemed to be over when the forward lost possession as he advanced down the left flank, but Lukas Radil was robbed of the puck behind his own net. That returned the play to Barabanov, who was able to walk to the slot and shoot through traffic with Hrubec unsighted.

“It feels good to be back on the [national] team,” Barabanov said. “I’ve missed these guys, it’s a long time since I’ve seen some of them. I’m still not 100% yet, the ice is bigger here and the flight affected me. But I hope there’s more to come as the tournament goes on.”

This time, ROC did a better job of holding onto its lead until Yevgeni Timkin needlessly fouled Vrana in centre ice to hand the Czechs only a second power play of the game with 3:42 to play. This time, the offensive unit did its job, generating several shooting chances before Kubalik’s one-timer was deflected into his own net but the unfortunate Artyom Zub.

"We came back three times but I don't know if that can be considered a positive," Hronek reflected after the game. "We lost, and that's a shame. We can only learn and show that we can play better."

However, Czech joy was abruptly halted when Grigorenko, the other NHLer on the ROC attack, grabbed that last-gasp winner.

"There's a lot of confidence on this team," Grigorenko added. "For our country, there is only one requirement - to win every game. It's good to start with a win against the Czechs, but we can't afford to underestimate our next opponents."

Czech head coach Filip Pesan, though, was left to curse his team's decision making in the final moments. "We can't change at that time and the players know that," he said. "That's what went wrong and we paid the price. We need to be stronger, both physically and mentally. We're meeting another strong team tomorrow and we're definitely going to be a better team."

For ROC, the next game is tomorrow against Great Britain; the Czechs face Switzerland in the Saturday evening game.
ROC vs Czech Republic - 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship