There won’t be gold for Auston Matthews and Team USA in Finland. Instead, they’ll play for the bronze tomorrow against Sweden after falling to Russia in the semifinals 2-1 at the Under 20 World Junior Championship.
Russia advances to the championship game to play host Finland tomorrow. It’s the third consecutive year Russia has defeated USA in the elimination round. In fact, USA hasn’t beaten them at the WJC since 2007.
Surprise Russia starter Ilya Samsonov made 26 saves. Yegor Korshkov had a goal and assist including the game-winner in a strong second period for the Russians. They outscored the Americans 2-0 after trailing on an early goal from Christian Dvorak.
The story of the first was the superb netminding from Alex Nedeljkovic. The Hurricanes prospect made 14 saves in the opening period. Splendid throughout the tournament, he was awfully tough to beat. But on a night where he finished with 31 saves, his team wasn’t able to generate enough offense.
In the first, USA used their speed to get on the board first. Columbus prospect Sonny Milano skated around the Russia defense and centered in front for Dvorak who finished it off at 9:03 with Zach Werenski getting the secondary assist.
Despite some good chances to increase the lead, they couldn’t. 2016 Draft Eligible Matthew Tkachuk hit the post late in the period following a successful full two-minute penalty kill of a Russian 5-on-3. The three penalty killers along with Nedeljkovic did a solid job with Werenski off for slashing and another USA player serving the other two minutes for a bench minor.
If there was a sore spot for American coach Ron Wilson’s team, it was their lack of discipline. They took three penalties in the first and were shorthanded four times. Even though Russia didn’t score on any of the four power plays, they were able to gain momentum.
Sure enough, they were more the aggressor throughout the second and put USA on its heels. Eventually, it resulted in the tying and winning goals 2:48 apart. With 4:52 left in the period, Pavel Kraskovski was able to get to a Korshkov centering feed and beat Nedeljkovic for the equalizer.
Korshkov then converted off a USA turnover in their end. The gifted forward skated around an out of position Werenski and stuffed one past Nedeljkovic unassisted with 2:04 remaining. It was a superb individual effort from Korshkov but never should’ve happened. Werenski got beat badly and Nedeljkovic gave up a rare bad goal.
Unfortunately, that was enough to doom the Americans. Despite Russia handing them consecutive power plays less than four minutes apart spanning the second and third period, they were unable to take advantage. Following a Russian too many men on ice, they came close a couple of times. But Samsonov thwarted them.
Russia was able to limit Auston Matthews to two shots. He entered with seven goals needing one more to tie Jeremy Roenick’s USA record in 1989. But his line with Tkachuk and captain Colin White were shutout. They only had a few good shifts combining for seven shots.
Credit goes out to Russia who played a very stingy defensive third period. Even on the wider Olympic surface used at Hartwell Arena, they did a great job in the neutral zone taking away time and space. They also kept most of USA’s chances to the outside.
Wilson pulled Nedeljkovic with 1:59 left for an extra attacker. But even with a 6-on-5, they didn’t really get the looks needed to beat Samsonov. There was one close call but they missed wide. Russia defended well and earned the win.
Afterwards, USA’s three top players were selected as voted by the coaches. Not surprisingly, Matthews, Nedeljkovic and Werenski were tabbed.