"Every guy on the team is happy about this, but this is only the beginning for us," said Russia's Vsevolod Gaidamak. "This is the first step toward our goal."
This wasn't the easy blowout for coach Albert Leshyov's Russian boys that some observers had anticipated. Trailing 3-0 in the second period, Belarus fought back to make it 3-2, but just didn't have enough firepower to pull off the upset. Russia's opportunistic skill proved decisive, with two unassisted goals in the third period when Belarus outshot Russia 15-4.
"It was a tough game with high pressure for us, but we had two individual mistakes that made the result," said Belarus coach Dmitri Shulga. "The third period was pretty good, but we had some non-obligatory penalties."
Russian goalie Sergei Ivanov turned in a strong performance versus Belarusian starter Tikhon Chaika. Final shots favoured Belarus 32-29.
Russia is now two wins away from breaking a gold-medal drought dating back to 2007. Despite its hockey superpower status, Russia has just three gold medals all-time at the U18 Worlds. It settled for silver in 2019 behind host Sweden.
The Russians managed to blank Belarus’s top goal-scorer, Danila Klimovich, who entered this game with six goals, all of them on the power play.
"Obviously, we did our job tonight and we're heading into the semi-finals," said Leshyov.
Day by day, the dynamic 16-year-old Michkov continues to carve out his place in history. Only six other times since the U18 Worlds began has the leading goal-scorer finished in double digits: Ilya Kovalchuk (11, 2001), Alexander Ovechkin (14, 2002), Toni Rajala (10, 2009), Teemu Pulkkinen (10, 2010), Nikita Kucherov (11, 2011), and Cole Caufield (14, 2019).
"His game is just stunning," said Yurov of Michkov. "And I'm pretty sure that if he continues to play that way, there's a great future ahead."
The Belarusians kept working hard, but their chances proved fruitless. Forward German Yavash powered to Ivanov’s net and pushed the puck through him, but there was no goal, as he took the game’s first penalty for goalie interference at 13:52. Off the ensuing faceoff in the Belarus end, life got worse for the underdogs when defenceman Maxim Sushinski was dinged for high-sticking.
Predictably, the Russians worked the puck around with panache on the 5-on-3, and Yurov blew a one-timer set up by Arseni Koromyslov past Chaika’s glove for a 2-0 lead at 15:18. Yurov, a 17-year-old forward who played 21 games for Metallurg Magnitogorsk as a KHL rookie this season, is chasing Michkov for the U18 Worlds scoring lead (4+7=11).
In the second period, an early icing call on Belarus proved costly. Off the ensuing faceoff, Fyodor Svechkov sent the puck back to the left point, where Artyom Duda fired a rising slapper for a 3-0 lead at 2:48. Svechkov hit the post a few minutes later.
Belarus refused to fold. They cut the deficit to 3-1 at 7:55 with some snazzy, old Soviet-style puck movement. Behind the goal line, Danil Rogach fed Miroslav Mikhalyov at the side of the net, and he backhanded the puck to Ilya Morozov, who eluded a stick check to fire it home.
Less than four minutes later, it was 3-2. Belarus's Ivan Anoshko did a great job of winning a draw in the Russian zone and dishing the puck to Fyodor Nikolayenya, who made no mistake.
Intense Belarusian pressure ensued, as they dominated the rest of the middle frame, but they couldn't find the equalizer. On the Russian counterattack, Svechkov forced Chaika to make an excellent stop in tight two minutes before the siren.
"The second period was very tough for us, and I was surprised that the power play didn't work for us tonight," said Shulga.
Michkov showed some questionable discipline, going off with Belarus's Nikita Parfenyuk for coincidental roughing minors late in the second period and taking a tripping penalty early in the third.
Russia weathered the Belarusian man advantage and finally struck back. Ivan Miroshnichenko got loose on an odd-man break, scoring off his own rebound for his fourth U18 Worlds goal and a 4-2 lead at 6:23.
"During the break, we made some changes, line changes, and as we saw right now, this is what really worked for us in the third," said Leshyov.
Tragically for Belarus, a giveaway by Sushinski, who put the puck into the middle of the ice in his own zone, enabled Gaidamak to make it 5-2 at 8:34. There would be no magical comeback.
"I was right where I should have been," said Gaidamak. "I was in my place tactically. The D-man from Belarus, he made a no-look pass and he made a mistake. I just reacted, got the chance, and scored the goal."
This was a rematch of the Russia-Belarus quarter-final in 2019, the last time the U18 Worlds took place before the pandemic. Russia defeated Belarus 6-0 in Umea on 25 April, outshooting their opponents 65-19 en route to Yaroslav Askarov’s shutout.
Monday's losing side has reason for some optimism. 2021 marks Belarus’s fourth consecutive appearance in the top U18 Worlds division, an all-time best for this country. And there will be a fifth next year. (Incidentally, Belarus's best tournament finish ever is also fifth, in 2002 and 2019.)
"Those guys that we had in our roster that were born in 2004, they can be better next year," said Nikolayevna. "The team next year could show their best qualities and could achieve better results than we did this year."
The three best players of the tournament for Belarus were named after the game: Tikhon Chaika, Dmitri Kuzmin, and Danila Klimovich.
Russia enjoys a perfect all-time record against Belarus at this tournament with six regulation-time wins dating back to 2000. Altogether, the Russians have outscored Belarus 52-4.