Can risky Russians advance?

Russia (pictured: Ivan Fishenko) and Sweden (pictured: Christoffer Ehn) had a close game in the preliminary round. Photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images

On paper, Sweden’s a better semi-final bet

A playoff round showdown between Sweden and Russia has become a World Junior tradition. And it’s a tradition the Swedes usually enjoy these days.

The two northern powers have clashed in three of the last four semi-finals (2011, 2013, 2014), and Sweden has won the last two. In 2011, Russia’s Denis Golubev scored the 4-3 shootout winner in Buffalo, while in 2013, Sweden’s Sebastian Collberg did the same in a 3-2 victory in Ufa. Last year on home ice in Malmo, Oskar Sundqvist beat goalie Andrei Vasilevski with a beautiful breakaway deke as Sweden prevailed 2-1 in regulation time.

Of course, the most famous recent meeting between Sweden and Russia was the 2012 gold medal game in Calgary. Netminder Andrei Makarov put on a show as the Swedes earned a whopping 58-17 edge in shots on goal. But it was now-Ottawa Senators forward Mika Zibanejad who wrote his name in the history books by rushing in to notch the 2-1 overtime marker that gave Sweden its first World Junior crown in 31 years.

So the smart money says Sunday’s early semi-final at the Air Canada Centre should be a close one, but the blue-and-yellow team will likely come out on top. (That scenario has already played out once at this tournament, with Axel Holmstrom’s goal midway through the third period standing up as the 3-2 winner versus Russia in Group B play.)

Current trends indicate that the unbeaten Swedes have the tools to advance to their fourth consecutive World Junior final, which would maintain the longest active streak among elite U20 nations.

Their special teams are on fire. Case in point: their 6-3 quarter-final victory over archrival Finland – usually known for its stingy defence – featured three goals with the man advantage. Overall, they have 12 goals on 24 PP opportunities, accounting for half their total goal production. (Russia is 6-for-20.) And Sweden is the only team in the tournament that hasn’t given up a single power play goal. (Russia has allowed five.)

The Russians are traditionally noted for their spectacular individual skills, but they have no players in the top 10 in the scoring race. Sweden has four: Oskar Lindblom (4-5-9, tied with Canada’s Sam Reinhart for the tournament lead), William Nylander (2-7-9), Gustav Forsling (3-5-8, with twice as many points as the next defenceman, Canada’s Madison Bowey), and Adrian Kempe (4-3-7).

When it comes to team play, puck possession will be a major key in the semi-final.

“They want to have the puck and we want to have the puck,” said Rikard Gronborg, Sweden’s head coach for the second straight year. “We have to get a plan together to have more pucks than them because they have really good transition.”

Coming off a 3-2 quarter-final win over the Americans, the Russians are riding a wave of emotion. Sergei Tolchinski of the OHL’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, who tallied the winner, summed up the feeling during the quarter-final: “We had a family. We had a team. We played with heart. We had a lot of urgency, and I think it was a really good game for us.”

Yet while the end result was joyful for the Russians, the Americans did outshoot them 41-25. And even if you’d rather cut your toenails than talk about Corsi, you can’t discount the discrepancy in puck possession. If Russian goalie Igor Shestyorkin hadn’t been tremendous and the U.S. hadn’t been queueing for the penalty box as if it were a new Star Wars movie, the result could have been different.

Afterwards, U.S. goaltender Thatcher Demko was blunt about the Russians: “I don’t think they played better than us. We took a period’s worth of minutes in penalties. It’s pretty hard when we’re only playing two-thirds of the game at even strength.”

If the Swedes stay out of the sin bin and their opportunistic foes aren’t able to capitalize on the power play as they did versus the U.S., it’ll be hard for Russia to advance.

This Russian team has already thrown away should-have points against Denmark and the Czechs – in addition to the aforementioned loss to Sweden. Consistency is not its hallmark.

Now, Tolchinski did put the win over the Americans in perspective: “It’s just a little step toward our goal of a gold medal. We’re going to keep working hard and get ready for the next game.”

But the Swedes are masters of preparation and consistency. They’re in the final four for the ninth straight year. That is not a mistake. They won’t take the Russians lightly by any means.

“They’re a really skilled team, really tough players, and we’re going to have to come out there with the exact same game,” said Kempe.

When Russia last won this tournament in 2011, it was a roller coaster ride from start to finish, with horrific plunges and tremendous ascents, right down to the five-goal third-period outburst that gave them a 5-3 triumph over Canada in the final.

You can never discount the Russians. But you need to be a bit of a gambler to pick them over Sweden on Sunday – unless you believe it’s 2011 all over again. Of course, if you do pick them and they win, you will have (coach Valeri) “Bragin rights,” so to speak. At the very least until Monday’s final.

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