Russia will face Canada after semifinal thriller
CALGARY — The game everyone’s been waiting forward to since the 2012 IIHF world junior championship began is now a reality.
Canada versus Russia.
Bring it on.
And though that’s what everyone wanted to talk about on Monday night — even the crowd was chanting ‘Go Canada Go’ at game’s end — you have to forgive the Russians for wanting just a little time to savour a hard-fought, entertaining 2-1 overtime victory over the Czech Republic in their quarter-final matchup at the Scotiabank Saddledome.
The defending champs will meet Canada — the team they beat in last year’s final — in a semifinal on Tuesday night. Sweden and Finland meet in the other semi.
“I think today was a real deserved victory for us, we worked hard,” noted Russia’s head coach Valeri Bragin, through an interpreter. “(Tuesday) will be a very tough game. We know everything about Canada and they know everything about us.
“Everybody remembers that Canada lost in the final. They’ll do their best to get their revenge but also we will try our best to win second year in a row.”
In a game which showcased two fabulous goaltending performances — by Russia’s Andrei Vasilevski and Czech Petr Mrazek — a slapper by defenceman Grigori Zheldakov at 1:30 of the extra period was the difference.
The Russians withstood a Czech power play to start the overtime and shortly after the penalized Nikita Kucherov came back on the ice, Zheldakov took a shot — his team’s 45th — which eluded Mrazek.
“I tried to put all my emotion in that score and I hope that emotion will help us against Canada,” said a joyful Zheldakov. “I think it was the biggest goal of my career so far.”
The sound of puck on pad was the music of this night in what turned out to be an old-fashioned goaltenders’ duel. The Czechs fired 39 at the Russian net.
“Our goalie has played like this the whole tournament and I think he deserved to be best player from our team,” added Zheldakov, 19. “(Mrazek) played an excellent game. He’s human, in the end, and we were able to score.”
Mrazek and Vasilevski each took turns basking in the spotlight and eliciting oohs and aahs from the crowd.
“We were so close to the semifinal,” sighed Mrazek, who has become a fan favourite in this tourney for his celebratory moves . . . but there would be no celebrating on this night.
“Everybody is mad and sad. They played hard and they scored one more goal than us. He (Vasilevski) made great saves and that was key for them today.”
Vasilevski didn’t come out to speak after the game as he was “focusing” on Tuesday’s encounter, according to officials.
Mrazek, meanwhile, was lamenting what he deemed a missed penalty call when teammate Daniel Krejci went flying into the boards just seconds before Zheldakov’s winner.
“I don’t think it was a (good) goal because there was a high-stick and we were playing with just three guys, so that was pretty disappointing for us,” he complained.
Czech Republic assistant coach Jiri Fischer, however, discounted that theory.
“Those are excuses. We got scored on and that’s the bottom line,” the former NHLer pointed out. “It’s a pretty emotional tough loss for the boys. I was happy we got better in the second period. As the game went on, I thought we were adequate.”
The Russian objective heading into the game was to throw everything but their water bottles at the Czech net and they followed that game plan perfectly, particularly in the first. The Czechs, however, rebounded nicely in the second and it was they that took it to the Russians, Jakub Culek making good when he shovelled the puck past the 17-year-old goalie.
It would take, however, a relatively harmless play to get Russia back in the game. Danil Apalkov skated in over the blue-line and took a long shot that beat Mrazek on the stick side at 12:47 — one the Detroit Red Wings draft pick would love to have had back.
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