Russia knows it escaped by the skin of its teeth against the Swiss. You could see it in the team’s body language after the game, in the lack of any sort of celebration. Captain Nail Yakupov did not even come out to be interviewed. But center and hero Mikhail Grigorenko, who along with linemate Nikita Kucherov iced the Swiss in the 4-3 shootout win, came out to answer to the throngs of Russian media. And if Russia has any chance of beating the Swedes in the semifinal, it will be the big Sabres prospect, not the Edmonton first overall pick, who will drive the bus.
While Grigorenko has been criticized in the past for alleged lackadaisical play, it seems as if he just thinks things through a little better than the average player. There’s an old quote attributed to Mario Lemieux: “When someone screams at me to hurry up, I slow down.” Watching Grigorenko operate at a deliberate yet methodical pace, the same impression can be gleaned. In a game when most of the Russians didn’t seem to be trying that hard (or in the case of Yakupov and defenseman Kirill Dyakov, too hard), it was Grigorenko who consistently got results and created chances, even if he wasn’t breaking any land speed records.
“He was player of the game I think,” said Bruins pick Alexander Khokhlachyov, who also scored on the night. “Good for him. Good for us.”
This is not to denigrate Yakupov or suggest that the effervescent youngster will not be a great NHLer, but perhaps he is best served as the sidekick, not the focal point. That won’t be a problem in Edmonton with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall already on the marquee and it won’t matter for Russia if Grigorenko maintains his inspired play. Think back to last year’s world juniors, where the usually goal-scoring Yakupov tallied nine points, all assists, while linemate Evgeny Kuznetsov took center stage. Yakupov’s passion for the game must be balanced (in the Ontario League, he took even middle-of-the-season losses hard as a member of the Sarnia Sting), otherwise he tries to do too much himself. Grigorenko proved against the Swiss that he can put a team on his back. He’ll need to do that again against Sweden, who won’t need an instant folk hero like Swiss netminder Melvin Nyffeler to cream the host squad.
“Their goalie was good and it was really hard for us tonight,” Khokhlachyov said. “We need to play more like a team and take advantage of our chances. We had a lot of chances, we just couldn’t score.”
In the other quarterfinal game, Team USA dog-stomped the Czechs 7-0. While the Czechs were underdogs, they did feature stars such as Tomas Hertl, Dmitrij Jaskin and Tomas Hyka. But that trio was locked down all game by America’s defensemen, who showed why that position might be their deepest here.
“Everyone knows their role,” said Phoenix first-rounder Connor Murphy. “Guys know that we need to think defense first and obviously we do scouting on each team and know which guys to look out for and what their tendencies are. We did a good job of that tonight.”
A smashing job, in fact. Patrick Sieloff played a steady, simple game, earning a bigger role thanks to a suspension to Shayne Gostisbehere, while usual suspects such as Jacob Trouba and Seth Jones continued their excellence. Murphy was also a force.
Canada’s up next for the Yanks in a rematch game that will once again feature the two best blueline corps in the tournament. Canada took the round robin clash 2-1, but Team USA knows it can hang with them. And while both teams can play a rugged style, it will be interesting to see how far they creep towards the edge, knowing that both squads feature deadly talents on the power play.