It was a contest that pitted the volatility of the Russian talent against the callowness of North American youth. In the end, a desperate Russian squad prevailed, 4 - 3. However, the score tell but a fraction of the story.
Looking at the numbers, it’s difficult to conceive that Russia actually prevailed. Shots on goal favored Team North America 46 - 25. The young guns held a 53/47 advantage in the face-off circle, and had seven power play opportunities. It was, in truth, a game dominated by North America, except for two things: 1) a stretch of 6:14 in the second period, and 2) Sergei Bobrovsky.
Despite the pre-game hype over how the North American squad would play, there were really no mysteries here. The young guns came out with both barrels blazing, relying on their speed, skill and native instincts. Although Russia tried to be structured and physical, Johnny Gaudreau’s observation held true: “You have to catch us to hit us.” That speed and skill paid off just 5:14 in. Connor McDavid accelerated away from Pavel Datsyuk at center ice, then plowed through an attempted check along the right wing boards. Meanwhile, Austin Matthews was streaking down the center of the ice, edging toward the far post. The McDavid pass was perfect, and Matthews parked the puck in the open side of the net. Sergei Bobrovsky never had a chance.
Given the pace of play set by the North Americans, it seemed inevitable that the lead would grow. However, Bobrovsky had other ideas. He snuffed out every North American opportunity for the rest of the period, showing great presence, vision and reactions. The Russian squad seemed to be energized by the effort, and began spending some extended time in the offensive zone, actually outshooting North America for the period, 11 - 9.
In the second period, North America played 13:46 of dominant hockey. They outshot the Russians 18 - 10 for the period, and had numerous opportunities to score. However, that 6:14 stretch in the middle of the period proved to be their undoing, as they stopped doing what made them so successful in the first frame, and instead played undisciplined hockey in all three zones. The opportunistic Russians took full advantage of that lapse.
It began at 9:29 of the period, when Matt Murray surrendered a fat rebound off of a relatively harmless shot. Vladislav Namestnikov gathered in the rebound and put the puck back on net, but hit the post. The puck, however, caromed down to the sprawling Murray, striking his skate blade and rebounding into the net. Just 50 seconds later, the scene would be repeated, in somewhat bizarre fashion. After North America won a defensive zone face-off, Jacob Trouba attempted to clear the puck out of the zone by rimming it around the boards to the right. Instead, however, the puck struck a stanchion and took a crazy bounce toward the center of the ice. Nikita Kucherov was ready, knocking the puck out of mid-air on the first bounce, and past a surprised Murray. Russia now had the lead, and smelled blood in the water. Murray seemed shaky, and the North American skaters had seemingly lost their sense of purpose and structure.
Just 3:18 later, the lead was extended to 3 - 1 when Evgeny Kuznetsov gathered the puck in his own zone, muscled his way down the right wing, bore down on Murray from a sharp angle, and beat him under the arm. It was a nice individual effort by Kuznetsov, but a softie on Murray’s part. The TV commentators speculated that Murray would be pulled, and the coaching staff should likely have followed that advice. Just over two minutes later, Vladimir Tarasenko took the puck from Pavel Datsyuk and let fly with a quick turnaround shot from the top of the left circle. It was unclear if Murray was screened, or simply surprised. Either way, the puck was in the net, and the Russians had a three-goal lead. That was the end for Murray, who was replaced by John Gibson.
To their credit, the North American club did not cash it in after the cataclysmic six minute stretch. They found their legs, pushed the play and again appeared the more dominant force. Just 2:13 after Tarasenko’s goal, Morgan Rielly collected a blocked shot near the top of the left circle, and zinged one past a screened Bobrovsky to narrow the lead to two. That left just a two-goal deficit at the break, and there was a profound sense that this one was far from over.
For the North Americans, the third period was all about missed opportunities. For the Russians, the third period was all about Sergei Bobrovsky. North America outshot Russia 19 - 4 in the third period, but could only solve Bobrovsky once, despite numerous chances from close range. Bob was every bit of his Vezina Trophy year self — anticipating the play, sealing the posts, tracking the puck and making solid decisions along the way. The lone blemish came just 3:01 into the third, when the North American team garnered its only power play goal of the game. What started as a one-man advantage became effectively a 5-on-3 after Ivan Telegin blocked a nasty point shot, and could not get back to his feet. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins took advantage of the numerical edge, and was able to beat Bobrovsky low, for the final tally of the game.
The final 17 minutes was a flurry of North American offensive pressure, and Bobrovsky denials. With just 51 seconds left in the game, Dmitry Orlov took an ill-advised tripping penalty. With Gibson pulled, the North Americans had a two man advantage, and did everything in their power to take advantage. Again, however, Bobrovksy was the unmovable object, making tremendous saves on serial rebound chances. As time wound down, Shane Gostisbehere rocketed one off the post to Bobrovsky’s right. The carom enabled Russia to clear the puck the length of the ice, and time expired.
This was the game of the tournament thus far, and showed how dangerous the Russians can be, and just how resilient the young North American squad is. Both teams fell victim to their inherent weaknesses, but found ways to rebound and assert the play. Both clubs are in the thick of the tournament race as they prepare for their final round robin games on Wednesday, when Russia will face Finland, and North America squares off against Sweden.
In Other News . . .
In the other World Cup game, Team Europe continued its surprising run, nipping the Czech Republic 3 - 2 in overtime, on a breakaway by Leon Draisaitl. Europe finds itself in the driver’s seat in Group A, with one game left against Canada. Meanwhile, the Czechs are all but officially eliminated.
Meanwhile, a few hundred miles west, the Blue Jackets prospects posted a gutsy 3 - 2 win over Chicago in the Traverse City Prospects Tournament. Columbus fell behind 2- 0 early, but battled back for the victory. Pierre-Luc Dubois had the game winning goal in the third period, executing a wrap around that had President of Hockey Operations John Davidson gushing about the power and skill Dubois displayed.
Unfortunately, the win was not enough to get the Blue Jackets to the championship game, as Detroit nipped St. Louis 2 - 1, giving Detroit the nod in the tie-breaker, based upon their head-to-head victory over Columbus. The Red Wings will play Carolina for the title at 7:30 p.m. tonight, while the Blue Jackets will face off against the New York Rangers at 6:30 in the third place game. All in all, a good showing by the youngsters.
I think the USA plays somebody tonight in Toronto? Canada, maybe? We have that covered as well. Stay tuned.