USA, Russia headed to U18 finals

By Jeff Dahlia

USA beats Canada 2-1 in a comeback thriller

Americans set for gold medal rematch against Russians

Before Team USA and Team Canada took the ice on Saturday night, there was a certain buzz building around the cities for what became the most anticipated showdown at the 2009 IIHF U18 World Championships. By the time an arena record of 4906 fans – predominately Americans with Canadians sprinkled throughout – filled the Urban Plains Center in Fargo, the stage was set for a battle of epic proportions.

And when Team USA hit the ice, not only were they ready to take the fight to Team Canada, but this time the fans were there to remind them that they weren’t going at it alone.

When the referees whistled the Americans for four consecutive minor penalties towards the end of the second period, the fans booed the officials every chance they got. When Team Canada went up 1-0 in the same period, their fans remained resilient. A fan brewing with a little bravado even hoisted a sign that read, “Hey Canada, we will send you your bronze medal via the Red River, eh.” And when the team returned for the final frame, their fans let out a continuous stream of deafening cheers to make the arena as uncomfortable as possible for the visitors.

“With the crowd here tonight, I had goose bumps on the bench at times,” Team USA head coach Ron Rolston said. “They were booing the referees out of the building after the second. They were just behind us and you could just feel the energy.”

How did Team USA respond? Much like the entire populations of Fargo, Moorhead and the outlining communities has over the last month, the squad bent, but they didn’t break. They answered the call and fought back en route to a 2-1 come from behind win.

Both teams would take the opening period to feel each other out, as they headed into the first intermission in a scoreless tie.

Things were even throughout the majority of the second period. But Team USA would get into a rut towards the end of the middle stanza, getting called for three consecutive penalties.

Team Canada took advantage of a 5-on-3 situation to go up 1-0 when defenseman Dylan Olsen wired a shot from the top of the left circle that beat Team USA goalie Jack Campbell.

“Getting that power-play goal was a key point in the game,” Olsen said. “We needed that goal. We also hoped that when we got it, it would get the momentum going.”

Seconds after the score, Ryan Bourque was whistled for the fourth consecutive USA minor, but the Canadians were held at bay. As time expired in the second, a visibly frustrated Team USA headed into the locker room looking for answers.

“We just had to get back to 5-on-5 and try to use some of our speed and start getting to their net,” Rolston said. “Our focus in the third was to try to get pucks in the area to make them make a save and to try to get the second opportunities.”

Just over the halfway point of the third period, Team USA did just that.

On a power play of their own, USA would draw things even at 9:27. Working the puck around Canada’s zone, Jerry D’Amigo put a shot on goalie Michael Zador. The Canadian netminder made the initial save, but the rebound trickled out to his right where Jeremy Morin was waiting to slam home the rebound.

“That was one of the biggest goals I’ve ever scored,” Morin said. “Just the emotion after that left us on a high. Then the crowd got into it and we were ready to go get that second one.”

Team USA’s good fortune continued as Canada was whistled for consecutive minor penalties of their own following Morin’s equalizer.

Team Canada would kill the first penalty, but Team USA turned things up and continued to wear them down.

“We took two penalties in the first two periods and then we took four in the third,” Team Canada head coach Mike Johnston explained. “That was the turning point in the game.”

After the U.S. was able to control play in the offensive zone, they began to take their liberties on the Canadian goalie. Zador did his part stopping most of what was thrown at him, but Team USA’s pressure was relentless. The Americans would hit pay dirt, when D’Amigo redirected a Cam Fowler blast from the top of the left circle to take a 2-1 lead.

“Cam got the puck up top and shot it down,” D’Amigo said. “I went right in front of the net and it went off my shin pads and went in. Everything was going through my mind at that point. I mean we got the lead with six minutes left which was great.”

The Canadians would come right back on the attack, applying pressure of their own. But Team USA had other plans. Campbell turned away the remaining shots while the rest of his team adjusted the defense and stifled Team Canada until time ran out on.

“We had to tighten up,” D’Amigo explained. “Big defense. Get the puck in deep and really secure the lead at that point.”

As time expired, the building erupted and the celebration was on.

“They were just a big part of this game as we were in the third period,” Rolston finally added about the fans. “It kept our guys energized and it gave our guys that extra boost to win the hockey game.”

Russia blanks Finland in semi’s

Bobkov and Kuznetsov duo solid again in 4-0 win

Having shared a lot of history together, it’s really no surprise that the fierce competition between Russia and Finland continues to find its way onto the ice. After losing their preliminary match up to Finland to open the tournament, Russia vowed that this time out would be different. Russia beat the Finns 4-0, reminding their neighbors once again that what they giveth, they can taketh away.

“It’s the semi-finals so we knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” said Russian head coach Vladimir Plyushchev. “The players carried out the plan we put in place and I’m really happy for the result.”

Finland opened strong as they were both aggressively and relentlessly throwing the body to try to grab the physical advantage.

“We know a lot about Team Russia because we’ve played many times against them,” Finnish head coach Mika Marttila said. “We had to play our own style of hockey. That’s how we started out, but the problem was we couldn’t score.”

The two teams spent the majority of the first period exchanging pleasantries and trips to the sin bin.

You could tell just how intense things were when Plyushchev appeared to become infuriated after one of his players got upended right in front of the Russian bench. He started banging on the glass that separates the benches in order to summons the Finns. As he made eye contact with a Finn coach, he motioned as if he was sending them a warning.

But as the saying goes, turn around is fair play. Russia would match the Finn’s intensity, but they struck them where it hurt the most.

Early in the second period, Evgeny Kuznetsov came streaking down the right circle at Finnish netminder Joni Ortio. Kuznetsov made a hard cut in front of the netminder, but he had the puck poked off his stick by a Finnish defender. Maxim Kitsyn came crashing down the left wing and picked up the loose change. As Ortio went low, Kitsyn lifted the puck into the net to make it 1-0.

Exactly one minute later, Russia went right back on the attack as they had numbers deep in Finland’s zone. Alexander Burmistrov would find Kuznetsov who got slipped in behind the Finnish defense. Kuznetsov threw a backhand shot at Ortio that trickled over his glove to put Russia up 2-0.

Things would get chippy as the final frame opened, but play settled and the teams went back and forth. At 18:03, Burmistrov would put Russia up 3-0 when Kuznetsov set him up in the slot for the one-timer.

Kitsyn would add an empty net goal a minute later to more than secure the win. Defensively, Team Russia netminder Igor Bobkov was stellar between the pipes, stopping all 51 shots on the night. He was named the team’s most valuable player for the feat.

“Bobkov was just fantastic,” Plyushchev said. “He’s kept the team in the games and he’s one of the main reasons they’re here. His season was the greatest back home but didn’t get a lot of playing time because of his young age. But it’s nice to see him put it all together here.”

Bobkov modestly weighed in on yet another strong performance.

“I’m taking one game at time,” he said. “Yesterday was over. I was focused on this game and everything worked out fine. My defense was really helping me. I saw all the shots. It was a team game and I wouldn’t be able to do this without the team.”
Offensively for Russia, Kuznetsov led all players with four points (one goal, three assists).

“I have no doubt he’s one of the better forwards at the tournament,” Plyushchev said.