BUFFALO – For most of Russia’s quarterfinal tilt with Finland, the play of Suomi stars such as Joni Ortio, Sami Vatanen and Teemu Pulkkinen carried the day. But a couple lightning strikes late in regulation and the winner in overtime pushed Russia into the semifinal and the team has Evgeni Kuznetsov to thank.
The Washington Capitals first-rounder got his team back in the game with a gritty goal, turned Finnish captain Vatanen inside-out on a rush that ended with Maxim Kitsyn burying the tying marker of the game, then ended the match himself with a wrister in the dying minutes of overtime to lift Russia 4-3.
While Finland frustrated Russia all night and led by two goals deep in the third, Kuznetsov refused to say his team was outplayed.
“We tried hard every minute,” he said through a translator. “But that’s luck.”
The incredible offensive display put on by Kuznetsov, who plays for Traktor Chelyabinsk in the Kontinental League, was an eye-opener and begs the question, if the Russians can be that dangerous for an entire game, is there any reason to doubt them as a gold-medal threat? Sure, they will have to get through Sweden in the semifinal and then Canada or the United States, but players such as Kuznetsov, Kitsyn and defenseman Dmitri Orlov have game-altering skills.
“They should play like that in key moments,” said Russian coach Valeri Bragin, again through a translator. “They are our leaders.”
The fact his team trailed late and took many silly penalties, particularly at the end of the second period and early in the third, did not faze the bench boss, who also helmed Russia’s successful sojourn against the CHL in the recent major junior Subway Series.
“That’s hockey,” Bragin said. “We have to play every game to the last second.”
Which, unfortunately for Finland, spelled doom.
“The last five minutes was a disaster and we lost again,” said Pulkkinen, who had a goal and two points on the night. “I’m so disappointed.”
If it’s any solace, Finland played over its head the entire tournament and with star center Mikael Granlund missing the party thanks to the effects of a concussion, expectations were tempered. Nonetheless, the play of Ortio, Pulkkinen and Vatanen early, coupled with draft-eligible Finns Joel Armia and Miika Salomaki, made the outcome appear to be a blue-and-white lock.
Bragin believes the Finns tripped themselves up at the end of the third.
“They tried to dump the puck in, to play more simple instead of pressuring us,” he said. “Maybe that was their mistake.”
And a brutal mistake it was. The Finns now settle for a final game against Switzerland for fifth place in the tourney while the Russians take on Sweden in the semifinal. And while Sweden has already beaten Russia in this tournament, the underdogs aren’t flinching.
“There’s no advantage for Sweden,” Kuznetsov said. “We are highly motivated from that last five minutes (against Finland). We need to think fast next time and even faster if we make the final.”
From disjointed and frustrated to gleeful, the Russians have shown just what a bear they can be.
NOTES: In a game full of antics, the most bizarre came in the third when Russian goalie Dmitri Shikin dove into the corner of his own net after being brushed by a Finnish forechecker. Shikin was injured on the play but had only himself to blame; physics prevented the Finnish contact from being the source of his swan dive.