Canada has a shot at world junior retribution against the Russians on Tuesday.
The Canadian junior team, which suffered a monumental third-period collapse against Russia a year ago, will clash with the defending champs in the semifinals at the Scotiabank Saddledome. Finland and Sweden will meet in the early semifinal game on Tuesday.
The Russians squeaked past the Czech Republic 2-1 in overtime in their quarter-final match on Monday. Moscow Spartak defenceman Grigori Zheldakov blasted a shot past stingy Czech goalie Petr Mrazek 90 seconds into the extra period, 16 ticks after Russia killed off a high-sticking penalty to Nikita Kucherov that occurred near the end of regulation time.
Mrazek, a Detroit Red Wings prospect who plays junior for the Ottawa 67’s, was brilliant once again. The Saddledome crowd was cheering for the Czech Republic because of the flamboyant 19-year-old Mrazek, who often pumped his glove hand when he turned aside a good chance by the Russians.
He made 43 saves as the Russians outshot their rivals 45-39. Eighty-four shots exhibited the type of game that both Mrazek and his Russian counterpart Andrei Vasilevski enjoyed. The only goals in regulation arrived in the second period. First, the Czechs went up 1-0 midway through the period and Russia tied the game a few shifts later.
Vasilevski will be just one of the components the Canadians will have difficulty in dealing with the Russian team. This team has speed, skill and explosiveness, although the Russians were frustrated by Mrazek all evening.
The Czechs are the only common opponent Canada and the Russians have had in this tournament. Canada dumped the Czech Republic 5-0 in the preliminary round in Edmonton last Wednesday.
Russian captain Yevgeni Kuznetsov is the only returning player from the championship team a year ago. The Washington Capitals prospect is the most dangerous Russian player and is a threat every time he hops over the boards. Of course, Sarnia Sting forward Nail Yakupov, who is the favourite to be selected first overall in the 2012 NHL entry draft, can be dazzling, too.
While the Canadians outscored their opponents 27-5 in their four preliminary-round victories, the Russians went 3-1 last week and held a combined 23-5 advantage in goals scored. Their only blemish was a 4-3 overtime loss to Sweden last Saturday after squandering a 3-0 lead.
Devoting their efforts
The Russians have devoted their efforts in Calgary to the memory of those who perished in the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl plane crash last September. Among the 37 players, coaches and staff killed were two members, forward Danill Sobchenko and defenceman Yuri Urychev, from Russian coach Valeri Bragin’s gold-medal winning team from last year.
There also were two players, Pavel Snurnitsyn and Maksim Shuvalov, who likely would have been part of this Russian junior team.
Canada has four returning players from last year’s team in goalie Mark Visentin, forwards Brett Connolly, Jaden Schwartz and Quinton Howden. Visentin was in net when Russia scored five unanswered goals in the third period to take the gold-medal game 5-3.
Canadian head coach Don Hay has yet to name a starter for the semi-final game against the Russians on Tuesday. Visentin and Scott Wedgewood each played two games in the preliminary round.
Injured Canadian junior defenceman Nathan Beaulieu and Scott Harrington both practiced on Monday and are expected to play.
Although some of the Russian players and coach said that the Canadians have looked good so far at this tournament, they also feel that Canada has yet to be tested.
Mrazek would have loved to get another crack at Canada. When he left the Czech Republic and his club team Vikotvice in 2009 to play in Ottawa, the Czech hockey federation was not happy and vowed to exclude him from future national team play.
But with the help of Red Wings director of player development Jiri Fischer, also a Czech junior team assistant coach, the Czech hockey federation had a last-minute change of heart and allowed Mzarek to play this year. He certainly showed the Czech federation that it made the right decision.