Russians get revenge on Sweden, advance to final
Alexander Sharov of Team Russia celebrates his goal against Team Sweden during the semifinals of the 2015 World Junior Hockey Championships at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto on Sunday January 4, 2015. (Dave Abel/Toronto Sun/QMI Agency)
Everyone in Toronto spent the last 10 days swooning over the Swedes.
For 10 days, their world junior team resembled – and acted – like the popular cheerleader in high school.
All that adoration annoyed the Russians to no end. After three straight years of medal-round losses, they viewed the Swedes as the bully who kept kicking sand in their faces at the beach.
But this time, they had enough.
“It was time to stop this unlucky tradition (against Sweden),” Russian coach Valeri Bragin said through an interpreter after a convincing and clinical 4-1 semifinal beat down before 15,400 fans on Sunday evening at the Air Canada Centre.
“To get the win, the players realized there is nothing to be scared about.
“Just do what the coach asks and the win will come.”
Bragin isn't exactly a Don King-style of boxing promoter, but he knows what drives ratings and sells tickets on the ice.
Asked who he would like to face in Monday's final before Canada-Slovakia, he replied, “the best thing for (the hockey) business is a Russian-Canadian hockey classic.”
And what does he think of the Canadian squad?
“Very strong,” he said. “No weak points.”
If you have one, these Russians will find it.
The Swedes rarely faced adversity in racking up five straight wins here. They had an unstoppable power play and a perfect penalty kill.
Bragin's crew poked holes in all of it.
They scored the opening goal – undrafted KHLer Alex Sharov's first of two – and forced the Swedes to play from behind, which was a rather new experience.
Then, defenceman Ziat Paigin blasted a point-shot past goalie Linus Soderstrom, ending Sweden's perfect 18-for-18 run on the penalty kill.
The Swedes' power-play struck fear in the hearts of opponents. The shot-blocking Russians didn't give them a sniff.
“It feels terrible right now,” said high-scoring defenceman Gustav Forsling, who crushes pucks from the point.
This time, the Russians never blinked.
“They blocked the shots better than they did last game,” Forsling added. “We didn't shoot like we should do because the goalie (Russian Igor Shestyorkin) is not so great. We needed shots and rebounds and people in front.
“There would be more goals for us but we didn't do that today.”
The Swedes looked mortified. In their biggest moment, they came up small.
Even the International Ice Hockey Federation was in a quandary, having to come up with a Swedish top player for the post-game ceremonies.
No one in bright yellow distinguished themselves, so they gave it to Soderstrom.
And now, it has left us to wonder if the Russians, who banked a medal for the fifth straight year, were playing possum during the preliminary round.
The team that squeaked out a shootout win over Denmark is playing for gold?
“We knew it was kind of brutal in our group,” forward Ivan Barbashev said, “but after quarters (against the United States in Montreal) and semis, we played together and 100%.”
They lost to the Swedes last Monday after Barbashev's go-ahead goal was denied by video review. This time, they had another one wiped out – but they kept driving to the net.
Neither of these team's back ends are outstanding, but the Russian rearguards, at least, are bigger and older.
Rinat Valiev, the Leafs third-rounder who was largely overshadowed in Toronto's William Nylander love-fest, smartly busted up a threatening Swedish 2-on-1 late in the second.
“I was waiting for this all my life,” the Kootenay Ice (OHL) defender said. “We're playing fine right now. We play like one team. That's the biggest thing for us – trying to play physical and support each other.”
The Swedes crumbled when it counted. They have been among the final four teams at this event nine straight years, but have only won it all once in that time.
The Russians, who haven't made a ton of friends here, are proving hard to write off. All they know is keep those boos coming.
“Everybody's going to cheer against us,” Barbashev said, “but it's pretty normal here for Canadians. They probably hate Russia.”
But you can't help admire that they're still standing.