The U18 Worlds Enter the Medal Round
The Group Stage at the 2017 Under-18 Men’s World Championship in Slovakia is over, and — despite a couple of bumpy moments in their opening games — the young Russians are through to the quarterfinals. Read on, for a look back at Team Russia’s first four games, and a look ahead to what comes next.
As noted when we looked at Team Russia’s roster last week, coach Sergei Golubovich’s team opened the tournament with a difficult 3-1 victory over Sweden. Russia entered the final period down 1-0 in that one, but got things together to score three, including Andrei Svechnikov’s pair, to earn the win (Kirill Maximov had scored Russia’s first goal). Goalie Maxim Zhukov was the big star of the game, making 43 saves as Russia was out-shot 44-24.
In Saturday’s second game, against the United States, Russia took an early lead thanks to Pavel Koltygin’s short-handed goal in the first period. However, thereafter things went badly, and Team Russia found itself down 4-1 and then 5-2 by the middle of the third period. Late goals by Kirill Slepets and Ivan Chekhovich made for a barnstorming finale to the game, but the Americans hung on and took home the 5-4 victory.
The third game featured Belarus as the opposition, on Monday, and Golubovich will not have been happy with how his team started that one. Out-shot 13-7 by the Belarusans in a scoreless first period, Team Russia did not really start to play its game until mid-way through the second, by which time it trailed 1-0 thanks to Artyom Anosov’s goal. However, an upset was not on the cards this tme; Slepets and Chekhovich quickly gave Russia the lead, Svechnikov extended it in the third period, and Chekhovich’s second of the game rounded out of the scoring in a 4-1 Russian victory. The victory, as unconvincingly as it had started, did secure Russia’s place in the medal round with one Group B match left to play.
That final group-stage game occurred yesterday, against fierce old rivals in the Czechs, and it was a real classic. Three times, through the games first 45 minutes, Russia took the lead, Mark Rubinchik, Nikita Shashkov, and Svechnikov doing the scoring. And three times Team Czechia found an equalizer. Then, with thirteen minutes or so to go, Jan Kern put the Czechs in front for the first time. Russia pushed hard for a tying goal of their own, and it arrived with four minutes left thanks to Kirill Maximov. Off to overtime we went, and four minutes into the extras, defenceman Rubinchik finished what he had started, firing home off a two-on-one for a 5-4 Russian victory. The win gave the team a group-stage record of 3-1, with one OT victory, good for eight points and second place in Group B behind the 4-0 Americans. Of some concern for the coaching staff will be the fact that Russia has trailed at some point in all four of their games, but overall it has been a good performance.
And so the next order of business for Team Russia is tomorrow’s quarterfinal game, and there a potentially very tricky test awaits. Host team Slovakia will be the opponent, having finished third in Group A with a record of 2-2. However, not only are the Slovaks playing on home ice, but they have already taken Canada to overtime in this tournament before losing, and their one regulation-time loss came at the hands of defending champions Finland, who are 4-0 after group play and have the top three point-scorers at the U18s as well. In other words, Team Slovakia is not an opponent for anyone to take lightly.
One aspect of Russia’s group stage will make their coach a happy man: the goaltending has been superb. Zhukov’s save percentage through three games is .912, second-best among ‘keepers who have played at least half of their team’s minutes (the USA’s Dylan St. Cyr, son of Manon Rheaume, is the only one better, at .935). Kirill Ustimenko, meanwhile, stopped 31 of 32 shots in his lone action against Belarus. The two netminders are a big reason why Team Russia currently holds the best penalty-killing record at the U18s; they have been shorthanded 22 times, but have given up only 2 goals when playing down a man. Small sample sizes abound in this sort of tournament, of course, and those nice numbers can change in a hurry, but these are encouraging signs nonetheless.
As far as scoring is concerned, Andrei Svechnikov has been Russia’s big gun so far — no surprise there at all, despite his being his team’s youngest player. He leads the squad in goals (4) and shots (17, six ahead of anyone else on Team Russia), and is tied for the team lead in points (6). Svechnikov is both strong and skilled, and NHL scouts watching the tournament will doubtless be taking copious notes on him (he will be eligible for the NHL draft starting in 2018). Joining Svechnikov atop the team points list are Rubinchik (2-4-6) and Chekhovich (3-3-6); that trio is part of a (very) multi-way tie for fourth in tournament scoring. As noted above, the top three are all Finns, with Kristian Vesalainen’s 6-5-11 currently occupying first place.
Should Team Russia get by the Slovaks tomorrow, the semi-finals await on Saturday, followed by a shot at a medal of some colour on Sunday. However, the U18 Worlds do not do placement games (except the bronze medal match); so if Russia loses tomorrow, their tournament will come to an end, and their final placement will depend on who else is eliminated at the quarterfinal round. Whatever occurs, we will update you here when Russia’s tournament is over.
Thank you for reading!