Kuznetsov turns Russian storyline upside down

I'm using this goofy draft photo of Evgeny Kuznetsov until an appropriate one from the quarterfinal is loaded onto the photo server. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)


Wow. 

With four minutes remaining in the second quarterfinal between Russia and Finland, the Russians were going through another listless PP, trailing by 2 goals to a Finnish team with arguably the top goaltender in the tournament and a reputation for being excruciatingly responsible defensively.  The Russians had nothing going on all period, with most of their rushes being thwarted before a shot even could develop.  Then, Evgeny Kuznetsov saw a rare chance to drive to the net from the corner on his off wing, jamming the puck onto Joni Ortio's sprawling pad, before a little bit of space opened up on the rebound and he got the puck over the goal line just before the penalty to Teemu Pulkkinen expired.  Kuznetsov announced to the world that we were in for quite a finish, and he continued to make sure of it.

With just over a minute and a half to play, Kuznetsov broke in on the Finnish defense, deked out captain Sami Vatanen and forced Ortio to make a great pad save with his right leg (while moving to his left).  The end result was the puck was just sitting there for Maxim Kitsyn to pounce on to tie the game.  It was a sudden change in fortune from what seemed like a Finnish team that had done everything right all tournament long.  Overtime was forced thanks to the will, and more importantly skill, of Kuznetsov, the Washington Capitals first round draft choice (of course). 

And then, in OT, where the teams were trading chances and a shootout seemed like a likely option, Kuznetsov again stepped forward to win it all for Russia.  At 6:44 of OT, he skated into the high slot and wristed a shot top shelf, just to show he had a little bit of everything in his game.  His first goal was scored by determination and drive, the second by his unbelievable hands, and the third by a great snap shot. 

In the end, Finland's tournament will end in a place they're all to familiar with, the dreaded 5th place game, this time against Switzerland.  The Russians will take on the Swedes tomorrow afternoon in what should be a thrilling semifinal, as Russia will try and beat Robin Lehner after being stymied by him in the first game.  Sweden will definitely appreciate the fact that Russia had to work so hard to get to the semifinal, but they must be trying to figure out how the heck they're going to contain Kuznetsov.

The story seems the polar opposite of last year's quarterfinal for Russia.  In that game, they were playing the Swiss, leading 2-1, only ahead by one because of a spectacular performance from Swiss goalie Benjamin Conz.  Then, with one minute to play, Nino Niederrieter scored the tying goal, and followed it up in OT with the winner.  It was an individual performance that announced his arrival on the international stage.  Kuznetsov played the role of Nino for the Russians this time, helping them to an unlikely comeback victory with two goals and one amazing assist.

Canada, meanwhile, had to contend with Conz and the Swiss in their quarterfinal, and it wasn't easy.  The Canadians fired 50 shots in total on the Swiss net, and only beat Conz three times, but it was enough to enjoy a somewhat comfortable win.  The Swiss didn't pressure a lot, and scored in the first minute of the game on a stinker from Inti Pestoni, but for the most part the Canadians controlled this one from start to finish despite having a tough time scoring goals.  Casey Cizikas scored the key goal in the second period, on a bad defensive read by Luca Camperchioli that led to a 2 on 1 situation.  Canada also got goals from Ryan Johnasen, who was sensational with an astounding nine shots on goal, and Louis Leblanc, before Zack Kassian sealed it with an empty netter with two minutes to play. 

Canada now faces the Americans in a rematch of last year's gold medal game, this time in the semifinals.  The game will go tomorrow night at 7:30 PM EST, and promises to be an epic showdown in what is fast becoming the top international hockey rivalry.  The Americans appear healthy, and the Canadians seem to have managed to avoid the injury bug in the quarterfinal, so they'll be bringing a full team (minus Jayden Schwartz, obviously) to the table.  They'll also be bringing a different goalie, as Mark Visentin will get his first real tough test after relatively easy wins against Norway and Switzerland, in which he allowed one questionable goal in each game.  He replaced Olivier Roy as the starter after a less than inspiring performance by Roy in the preliminary round. 

Germany, Norway relegated

Germany nearly pulled it off against the Czechs, taking a 2-1 lead early in the 3rd period before Ondrej Palat scored twice, including the winner with one minute remaining, to assure the Czechs will return to the top level of the tournament in Alberta next year.  The regulation loss eliminated Germany, as Slovakia's 5-0 win over Norway earlier in the afternoon put them out of reach. Richard Panik scored four goals and added an assist in that Slovak win.

It's a real shame for Germany, who proved they can compete with the likes of the Czechs, Slovaks, and Swiss in this tournament, but because the current rules have us relegating two teams, the Germans keep getting bounced to and from the top level.  Personally, I feel they provide a way better level of competition than the other countries that tend to make appearances at the top level, such as Latvia, Austria, Denmark, Belarus, Norway and Kazakhstan, but unfortunately next year will be a weaker pool because of the current setup. 

The relegation round will conclude on Tuesday with what amounts to a 9th place game between Germany and Norway, where both teams will go for their only win of the tournament, and a 7th place game between the Czechs and Slovaks. 

Finland and Switzerland will play a 5th place game on Tuesday as well, at 7:30 PM at HSBC Arena in Buffalo, while the other four teams have an off day in preparation for the medal games on Wednesday.

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