Wrapping Up the 2017 Worlds
The 2017 edition of the IIHF Men’s World Championship came to an end today, as Sweden defeated Canada 2-1 in a shootout to win their tenth gold medal. That was in Paris — a little ways north and east, in Köln, Germany, Team Russia was taking Finland for bronze, and to extend their medal streak at this tournament to four years. How did it go? You can check the caption of the picture above, but also read on for the whole story, and for some thoughts about Russia’s performance at the tournament in general.
Russia’s trek through the medal round began on Thursday in Paris, and a quarterfinal duel against Czechia, who had gone 5-2 to finish third in Group B. Nine minutes into the game, Washington Capitals defenceman Dmitry Orlov came charging in from the point to snap a shot past Pavel Francouz and put Russia ahead 1-0. Five minutes later, it was another Capital, Yevgeny Kuznetsov, cutting behind the Czech net before teeing the puck up beautifully for Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov to make it 2-0 after the first period. And that score held up until the waning moments of the third, when Kucherov and Chicago’s Artemy Panarin headed off on a long two-on-one break. The former fed the latter for the 3-0 goal, and that was how it ended. Russian goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, another Tampa Bay player, made 27 saves in recording his third shutout of the tournament, and the team packed its bags for the return trip to Köln and Saturday’s semi-final date with Canada, who had finished the group stage atop Group B at 6-1.
The latest installment in that age-old hockey rivalry began well enough for Russian coach Oleg Znarok and his troops, as they carried the balance of play in the first period, and Vasilevskiy was not unduly bothered. The second period was more even, but Russia did achieve the breakthrough just past the 12-minute mark of the middle frame. A beautifully old-school piece of team play saw the puck move rapidly from Orlov to Kucherov to Panarin to Kuznetsov; the last of those four had all of that day and most of the next to tap the puck into a wide-open net. Russia’s second goal of the night arrived less than three minutes later on the powerplay; Nikita Gusev half-whiffed on Vadim Shipachyov’s cross-ice pass, but still got enough of the puck to deposit it behind Canadian netminder Calvin Pickard. Two-nothing the score after two periods, and Team Russia was 20 minutes away from an appearance in the gold medal game.
Then, however, things went wrong. Just 17 seconds into the final period, on the powerplay, Winnipeg Jet Mark Scheifele scored to get Canada within one. That triggered a massive push by the two-time defending gold medalists; shots in the final frame favoured Canada 19-5, helped along by three more Russian minor penalties. Even so, Russia stayed in front until just five minutes remained, when Nathan MacKinnon scored the equalizer. Canada was firmly on the front foot now, and a go-ahead tally from Ryan O’Reilly arrived just two minutes after that. Suddenly, it was Russia badly needing a goal, and Vasilevskiy was pulled for the extra attacker. The inevitable happened: Sean Couturier scored into the empty net to make the score 4-2. No further scoring occurred, and Znarok and Co. were left to rue a real opportunity squandered, and to look forward to a bronze medal game rather than a championship final.
Finland would be the opponents in today’s third-place game in Köln, and what a strange tournament they had! Dire in the first round, the Finns limped into the medal stage via fourth place in Group B… and promptly swatted a powerful American side, tops in Group A, out of the way by 2-0 in the quarterfinal. But Sweden in the semifinal proved a bridge too far for Finland; a 4-1 defeat saw them to the bronze medal game. On the Russian side, an injury to defenceman Vladislav Gavrikov meant that Andrei Mironov drew in, but that was the only change that Znarok made to his lineup.
Credit to Team Russia: they showed no signs of hanging their heads over the defeat by Canada. The first period was just seven minutes old when Gusev came flying off the bench to hammer a shot past Joonas Korpisalo and make the score 1-0. That was how the opening stanza ended, too, but in the first half of the second period, Russia poured it on. Vladimir Tkachyov of Ak Bars Kazan, almost a forgotten man at this tournament, converted a short-handed two-on-one with Valery Nichushkin into a 2-0 lead very early. Then, seven minutes into the period and with Russia on a powerplay, Panarin froze everybody with faked shot from the slot, then fed Gusev at the side of the net for the latter’s second goal of the game and a 3-0 advantage. And it became 4-0 just a minute later, when Bogdan Kiselevich’s wrist-shot eluded Korpisalo. It also ended the Finnish netminder’s evening; Harri Säteri, who has spent the last three seasons tending the net at KHL side Vityaz Moscow Oblast, was inserted in relief.
Russia appeared home and dry at that point, but the drama was just beginning. As the second period drew to a close, Mikko Rantanen scored what looked like a mere consolation goal for the Finns, but when Mikko Lehtonen tallied early in the third to make the score 4-2, things began to tense. The anxiety on the Russian got ratcheted up another notch four minutes later when Veli-Matti Savinainen found the net, and suddenly that four-goal lead was down to just one.
Up stepped Kucherov to settle the nerves three minutes later. Säteri made the initial save on the speedy Lightning forward, but Kucherov fought hard to the front of the net, and, while falling, was able to poke the puck into the Finnish goal. Five-three — a bit of breathing space — and Team Russia settled down from that moment on. Neither goalie would be bested again, and for the fourth year in a row, Team Russia goes home with a medal thanks to that 5-3 victory.
Given the third-period heartbreak against Canada, and the near-repeat thereof against the Finns, it is understandable that the Russian response to winning another medal was somewhat muted. Said coach Znarok: “We have won medals. Obviously [bronze] was not what we wanted, but I am also proud of my team.” Forward Sergei Andronov, for his part, also seemed to struggle to find much enthusiasm: “I have positive emotions, thank God, because we won. Bronze is not bad, not a bad result.” Russian Hockey Federation President Vladislav Tretyak, himself a veteran of the ups and downs of international hockey said: “I want to say that this team was worthy of a higher reward, but that’s sports.” Tretyak also firmly dismissed any suggestions of a change behind the bench, pointing out that Russia has never failed to medal in four World Championships under Znarok, and that the coach’s contract runs through next year’s Olympic Games.
There were some individual accolades to go along with the bronze medal. Vasilevskiy was named the tournament’s best goalie, on the strength of his three shutouts in nine games and his .936 save percentage. Panarin, meanwhile, led all scorers with a line of 4-13-17 in nine games, having missed one match due to injury, and was deemed best forward at this year’s Worlds. In fact, four of the top six point-scorers in Germany and France were Russian; Kucherov (10 gp, 7-8-15), Gusev (10 gp, 7-7-14), and Shipachyov (10 gp, 2-11-13) were the others. Gusev and Kucherov joined Sweden’s William Nylander, who won the tournament MVP award, atop the goals standings.
What are we to make of these 2017 Worlds for Team Russia? Well, the final result may have been a tad underwhelming, but four straight medals is nothing to sneeze at. Furthermore, there can be no dissatisfaction with the way this team played the tournament. The Russians positively flew at times, displaying a style of hockey — teamwork and passing delivered at tremendous speed — that was much reminiscent of their countrymen of decades past. They may not have won the big prize in the end, but they were beautiful to watch through large stretches of this tournament. And as a reminder, this was a Russian team that lost the services of all-time world-class scorer Sergei Mozyakin very early in the tournament due to injury — Mozyakin is ideally suited to that style of play, and it is a great pity that we did not get see more of him this year.
So a hearty “well done” to Team Russia for its showing at the 2017 Worlds, even if it did end in “merely” a bronze medal. And of course, many congratulations to Team Sweden, now the reigning World Champions!