The Red Machine is moving forward. Captain Nikita Chibrikov had two goals and an assist and Ivan Miroshnichenko scored twice as Russia outlasted Finland 6-5 in Wednesday's late semi-final. The Russians will battle archrival Canada in the 2021 gold medal game in Frisco.
"Obviously this is a very important game against such a great opponent," said Russia's Matvei Michkov, who scored his tournament-leading 11th goal. "This is a great honour for any player on this team to represent our country in the final of the U18 Worlds."
Remarkably, it's just the second Canada-Russia final in U18 Worlds history. Under coach Pat Quinn, Canada hammered the host nation 8-0 in Kazan in 2008.
For Finland, which made a wild push at the end, captain Samu Salminen and Joakim Kemell stepped up with two goals apiece. Goalie Aku Koskenvuo did his utmost to keep his team in it, but his counterpart Sergei Ivanov came away with the win.
Russia outshot Finland 38-24 and scored three power-play goals to Finland's two.
"Honestly, I'm happy that we came back in the third period, fighting for the winner," said Finnish coach Petri Karjalainen. "It was still very close in the end for us to have that sixth goal. But still, when you give up six goals in a World Championship semi-final, [you must admit] the better team went through."
The 16-year-old Michkov now shares the U18 Worlds points lead (13) with Chibrikov, one point ahead of Canada's rival wunderkind, 15-year-old Connor Bedard (6+6=12). Fans worldwide anticipate a great showdown between the two fresh-faced stars who could vie for the #1 overall selection in the 2023 NHL Draft.
"Hockey is a team sport and it's a team who plays, not just a person or any different player," said Michkov. "What can I say about Connor Bedard? He's a great player, but Canada is full of great players. Tomorrow we're gonna have a very interesting game and we're going to be ready."
"I'm very proud of everyone," said Finland's Brad Lambert. "I mean, we never gave up. But I can't really say much more about the game. I haven't really thought about it. It's just really upsetting."
Looking ahead to Sweden, Oliver Kapanen added: "I want to win the game and get a medal home. I hope that everybody has that same motivation. We've got to win."
Russia settled for the silver medal at the last U18 Worlds in 2019, falling 4-3 to host Sweden on Lucas Raymond’s hat trick goal in overtime. Russia’s only gold medals date back to the 21st century’s first decade (2001, 2004, 2007). So coach Albert Leshyov's players are hungry.
Although the first-period score was even, the ice was definitely tipped in Russia's favour.
Danil Lazutin opened the scoring with his first goal of the tournament at 3:08. Blazing through the neutral zone, he accepted Chibrikov’s pass, split the Finnish defence, and knifed a backhander over Koskenvuo’s glove.
Salminen answered right back on the power play at 4:04 after Ilya Kvochko was sent off for shooting the puck over the glass in his own end. From behind the goal line, Ville Koivunen found Salminen in the right faceoff circle, and his shot squeezed through Ivanov’s pads.
Just 40 seconds later, Michkov drew a penalty when top Finnish defenceman Aleksi Heimosalmi hauled him down. Yet the Finnish counterattack produced the first big chance of that man advantage. Defenceman Arseni Koromyslov tripped up Sami Paivarinta, who'd broken into the clear, and the Finn got a penalty shot. However, Ivanov outwaited the Lukko-trained forward, who attempted a backhand move.
On the same power play, Michkov made Finland pay. At 6:58, he fired home a zinger from the left faceoff circle, as Prokhor Poltapov provided the screen.
"I do believe that discipline was a key because the Finnish players got more penalties and we capitalized on that," said Miroshnichenko.
Again, though, Finland had an answer, and it came on a peculiar play. Kvochko batted Viljami Juusola's rising shot with his glove and Verner Miettinen backhanded it in mid-air into the net at 9:01. The play was video-reviewed to check for a high stick and since Niko Huuhtanen made contact with Ivanov, but the officials ruled the goal was good.
"One thing we keep saying to the boys, especially at an age like this, is that you have to keep yourself concentrated, keep yourself focused on every shift, especially after you've scored a goal," said Leshyov.
In the second period, Russia's persistent pressure paid off with another power-play goal. Koskenvuo sprawled to make a great save off Lazutin, but the Russian forward grabbed the loose puck and sent it to Chibrikov in the slot, who had a wide-open net to make it 3-2 at 13:15.
Just over four minutes later, Chibrikov was at it again, working a give-and-go with Dmitri Buchelnikov on the rush and using Heimosalmi as a screen to beat Koskenvuo for a 4-2 lead.
"He's a great leader and he scored very important goals tonight," said Miroshnichenko of Chibrikov. "The team's morale was up to the sky on the bench after his goals.
In the third period, the teams traded early power-play goals. At 3:43, Miroshnichenko put Russia up 5-2 with a high glove-side snap shot from the faceoff circle. At 6:14, Joakim Kemell cut the deficit to 5-3 with a quick shot from a similar position. The Finns had some life and began to throw their weight around.
The counterpunching continued. Miroshnichenko jumped on a loose puck, lured Koskenvuo to the ice, and scored a slick backhander to put Russia up by three at 10:46. But Salminen made it 6-4 just seven seconds later, batting the puck out of the air on the rush.
Karjalainen pulled his goalie for the extra attacker with just over four minutes left, and Kemell cashed in at 17:08 at the side of the net to make it 6-5. The never-say-die Finns were coming on strong, bottling up Russia as Koskenvuo stayed on the bench.
This was a rematch from the preliminary round. There, Finland rallied from a 3-1 second-period deficit to top Russia 4-3 in a shootout on Miettinen’s winner. But this time, the Finns just ran out of time.
"We have no problems about being motivated to play against Sweden in a bronze medal game," Karjalainen said. "For the players now, it's tough to swallow in the evening. This group of players, they're not a practicing team, so to speak, but they are for sure a game team. And tomorrow, when the puck drops at four o'clock, we will be ready. I will guarantee that."
The three best players for each team at this tournament were named. For Finland, it was Aleksi Heimosalmi, Samu Tuomaala, and Aku Koskenvuo. For Russia, it was Matvei Michkov, Nikita Chibrikov, and Sergei Ivanov.
The result ended Finland’s recent U18 Worlds dominance over Russia. Finland beat Russia 2-1 in the 2013 bronze medal game in Sochi and defeated Russia 4-3 in the 2016 quarter-final in Grand Forks, North Dakota en route to gold. In 2018, the Finns beat Russia 5-4 in group play in Chelyabinsk, where they won their last gold.
Russia’s last win over Finland was 3-1 in group play on 20 April 2013. But that's ancient history now, and the Russians are eager to write a new chapter in this new decade.