The Americans beat the Russians, 3-2, in the round robin, a score that didn't indicate how dominant the U.S. was in victory. Photo: Matt Zambonin / HHOF-IIHF Images
USA, Russia play rematch in semi-finals
The Americans and Russians will be playing each other at the U20 for the 18th time since Russia became a separate country in 1992.
The problem for the U.S. is that it has won only six times. The preliminary-round win against the Russians in Toronto was the first since 2007 after five losses during which they have never scored more than three goals.
Both teams got to the semi-finals in different ways. They played the two great surprises of this year’s event – Denmark and Switzerland – but to radically different effect.
Russia scored a very lucky early goal against Denmark and skated to a pretty easy 4-0 win. The Americans, even by their own admission, got here by the hair on their chinny-chin-chin, being outplayed badly by the Swiss the last half of the game but hanging on for a 3-2 win.
"We needed some adversity,” goaltender Tyler Parsons said afterward. “This was our worst game of the tournament, but it's big for us moving forward."
In other words, to play so poorly and to win is a lesson the team can take to its next game. The Russians? They’re firing on all cylinders right now.
Make no mistake, though. The Americans might well be the favourites tomorrow. They had a sluggish start to the tournament, improving as their opening 6-1 win against Latvia progressed, and got better with each game. A good 5-2 win over Slovakia was followed by a 3-2 win over Russia and then an emotional 3-1 win over Canada on New Year’s Eve.
The Russians, though, started with a 5-3 loss to Canada and then pounded Latvia, 9-1, before the loss to the U.S. which was actually more one-sided than the score indicated. They closed with a pedestrian 2-0 win over Slovakia. Coupled with their 4-0 win over Denmark yesterday, goalie Ilya Samsonov now has a shutout streak of 148:19 going back to the second period of the U.S. game.
Samsonov is sure to get the start for the Russians, but U.S. coach Bob Motzko has been public in declaring his allegiance for both his goalies and alternating them. That would mean Joseph Woll would start. The problem with that is that Parsons was fantastic in the team’s 3-2 win over the Swiss. It was the team’s best goaltending display of the tournament, so will Motzko really not go back to Parsons?
The teams have gone about their offence in markedly different ways. The U.S. has a balanced attack. Every player has at least one point, and every line has contributed to the scoring. As well, the team is coming together as a group in ways one can never predict.
Colin White and Clayton Keller have been sensational together, but in the last two games it has been the hulking Jordan Greenway who has emerged as the team’s best forward. He has been nothing short of sensational – quick, powerful, effective around the goal.
The Russians, on the other hand, have relied heavily on one line. Captain Kirill Kaprizov, Mikhail Vorobyov, and Alexander Polunin have carried the attack for Russia. Kaprizov leads the tournament with seven goals and and is second in points (10); Vorobyov is tops with eight assists; and, Polunin has three goals and six points.
That adds up to one line scoring half the team’s goals (10 of 20) and accounting for nearly half the team’s scoring points (24 of 56). If the U.S. can shut down this line, is there anyone else who can pick up the slack for Russia?
This is a rivalry built on history and players’ knowledge of that history. In terms of the rosters, the Russians are almost all players from KHL teams and the Americans all NCAA. Both have a few players in Canadian junior, and to that end Russia’s Sergachyov, who plays for the Windsor Spitfires of the OHL, is familiar with Americans Parsons (London Knights) and Jeremy Bracco (Kitchener Rangers).
What do the numbers tell us? Not much. Both teams have scored 20 goals. Both have seven goals via the power play. Both have almost identical penalty killing stats (Russia 76% efficiency, U.S. 74%). Goalies Parsons and Samsonov are both reliable and of the highest calibre.
This is a game that will be won by the team that executes better. Players from both sides have offered up the “we have to play our game” sound bite, so whichever team goes out and does that more effectively will win.
The results from the last few years favour Russia, but play here in 2017 favours the Americans ever so slightly.