Russia Wraps up Bronze at the U18 Worlds
Well, the main mission was accomplished; Russia’s medal drought at the Under-18 Men’s World Championship, which extended back to 2011, came to an end today when the youngsters downed Sweden by a 3-0 score to take third place in the tournament in Slovakia. Read on, for a recap of the medal round and some thoughts.
We last checked in with the U18 Worlds on the eve of Russia’s quarterfinal match-up with hosts Slovakia. A tricky game it seemed on paper, and a tricky game it turned to be. Fired up by a raucous home crowd, the young Slovaks fired 16 first-period shots at Russian goalie Maxim Zhukov, but it was Zhukov’s team-mate who did the only scoring; Ivan Chekhovich put Team Russia up 1-0 after 20 minutes. The second period was a reversal of the first, as Russia did all the shooting (16 shots) while two Slovakian goals meant that the home side had a 2-1 lead entering the final frame. But early in the third period, Checkhovich struck for the second time in the game, and the two teams went to overtime tied at 2-2. Eight minutes into the extra session, Kirill Slepets collected a loose puck, made his way with authority to the goalmouth, and snapped home the winner — 3-2 the final, then, in Russia’s favour, and it brought up a semi-final encounter with the defending champion Finns. The victory also guaranteed Team Russia a shot at that elusive medal.
Not only was Team Finland defending champions, but they had gone 4-0 in the group stage of the 2017 tournament, and had the top three scorers of 2017 in group play as well. So, another tough test for Team Russia. But head coach Sergei Golubovich had his troops well-prepared, and they out-shot the Finns 9-3 in a scoreless first period. In the second, however, Team Finland found its skating legs, peppering Zhukov with 19 shots, and taking the lead through Jesse Ylönen. We went to the third with the score 1-0, and for the second straight game, Russia’s equalizer arrived in the opening minutes of the final frame; this time it was Slepets, the overtime hero of the quarterfinal, who scored the tying goal. The score stayed 1-1, and we once again visited extra time. It would be one visit too many for Team Russia; Toni Utunen won it for Finland seven minutes in, propelling the defending champions to the gold medal game once again, and leaving Russia to fight for bronze against the Swedes.
For that third-place game, played on Sunday, coach Golubovich gave Kirill Ustimenko the start in goal, and the Dynamo St. Petersburg youngster was called upon early, facing 16 Swedish shots in the first period. But it was Team Russia that took the lead, as Danila Galeniuk got his squad on the board late in the first period. Early in the second, however, the Russian lead increased to two; Dmitry Samorukov intercepted a clearing attempt and skated in alone for the unassisted marker. Immediately thereafter the focus was back on Ustimenko, as Sweden’s Lucas Elvenes was fouled on a breakaway. “Penalty shot,” said the referee, and Elvenes stepped up to take it. But Ustimenko got just enough of Elvenes’ attempt to turn it wide, and the score remained at 2-0. The game’s final goal did not arrive until just 15 seconds were left in the third period, as Kirill Maximov found the empty net to secure Team Russia that long-sought medal.
Golubovich struck a subdued note in his post-tournament comments; he expressed pleasure in breaking the medal drought, but was still unhappy about the semi-final loss to the Finns. And there were certainly some elements of his team’s tournament that would cause the coach to furrow his brow, chief among them the fact that Team Russia trailed at some point in every game it played except the bronze medal match. The flip side of that, of course, is that in all but one of those six games where they were behind, the young Russians did manage to come back to at least force overtime.
And there were certainly other bright spots as well. Ivan Chekhovich and Andrei Svechnikov tied for third in points at the U18s, with nine apiece. Checkhovich (7 gp, 5-4-9), was second in goals as well, and was named one of the three forwards on the tournament all-star team. At the back, Maxim Zhukov was named the tournament’s top goalie, having given up only 14 goals on 189 shots for a .926 sv% (best among those who played more than three games). Between Zhukov’s .926 and Ustimenko’s remarkable .984 (he stopped 61 of 62 shots he faced over two games), Team Russia boasted the best team goaltending: a .940 sv% overall.
However, most of the attention was and will remain on Andrei Svechnikov, reasonably enough. The young man from Barnaul, who just turned 17 at the end of March, posted a line of 4-5-9, and his combination of size and skill was frequently on display (he already stands 6’2″). In the third period against Sweden, Svechnikov pulled off two spectacular moves in fairly quick succession: a coast-to-coast rush through most of the Swedish team, and a nifty deke-and-shot that left an opposing defenceman quite literally grasping at air (see highlights video at the start of this post, beginning at 6:45, and watch for #14 in red). Neither resulted in a goal, but they amply demonstrated how dangerous a player he is. Svechnikov has posted superb scoring numbers at every level he has encountered so far; his 2015-16 line for Ak Bars Kazan in Russia’s U16 league was 12 gp, 24-16-40, and this season for Muskegon of the junior-age USHL he scored 29-29-58 in 48 games. He will much sought-after when he becomes NHL draft-eligible in 2018, and doubtless the Detroit Red Wings, who already employ his older brother Yevgeny, will be particularly interested.
Svechnikov also has another year of Under-18 eligibility remaining, and that is doubly good news for Team Russia. Not only will he be back for next year’s tournament, with another year of experience under his belt, but the 2018 Under-18 Worlds will be held in Russia, in Chelyabinsk and Magnitogorsk. It should be a sparkling opportunity for the young man to wow the home fans, and Team Russia can entertain every hope of bettering this year’s performance.
Thank you for reading!