It was a game that had the makings of a classic. Plain and simple, Sweden and Russia do not like each other. The word "Hate" doesn't begin to do justice, and it certainly showed. Top spot in Group B was on the line in what was a physical, heated and exhilarating affair from start to finish.
Much has been made about Sweden's consistently prevailing power play. They scored an astonishing 26 goals in 13 games over the previous two tournaments, highlighted by a totally insane 36.1 power play percentage over that span. Coming into today's game, they were 3 for 10 with the man advantage; 30% for you mathematicians.
With Russia being the second most penalized team in the tournament thus far, it was fairly simple to prognosticate that the Russians needed to play disciplined hockey to have any chance. However, it would be difficult to do. After Sweden defeated Russia twice last year, revenge was on the mind; and it showed. It was a physical game filled with big hits and numerous scrums right from the get go.
Russia flirted with danger early on, going a man down midway through the first period. Sweden capitalized as defenseman Gustav Forsling opened the scoring with a patient and well placed shot through traffic from the point. It's easy to comprehend why the Vancouver Canucks prospect scored four goals at the under-18 tournament last year. Forsling knew he had to elevate the puck while taking some power off the shot in order to fool goaltender Igor Shestyorkin.
With a 1-0 lead at the end of the opening frame, Sweden was playing their typical brand of game; capitalizing with the man advantage while emphasizing a five man defensive unit. When the puck is in their own end, five yellow jerseys are visible at all times. It's also important to note that coming into day four of the tournament, teams with a day off before a game had previously outscored teams that played the day before 19-6. All signs pointed to a Sweden victory.
Russia needed to make adjustments, and they did. Early on in the second period, their defense was noticeably much more active in the play. Combined with a rise in physicality, they unexpectedly started to take it to Sweden. Eventually, Vyacheslav Leschenko banged home his second goal of the tournament on a rebound to tie the game at 1. The Swedes were clearly on their heels. In fact, they had recorded just four shots on goal over 27 minutes since the Forsling goal. Through 40 minutes, the game was tied at 1 with the shots dead even at 18 a piece.
Russia came out flying again in the third period, playing the same brand of hockey they emphasized in the previous frame. Early on, Vyacheslav Leschenko gave Russia their first lead of the game as he ducked behind the Swedish defence and capitalized on a poor rebound by goaltender Linus Soderstrom. It was Leschenko's second goal of the game and third of the tournament. Russia continued to play exactly the way they needed to; physical but disciplined hockey that allowed them to take it to Sweden while staying out of the penalty box in the process.
Sweden's best players needed to wake up, and they certainly did. Toronto Maple Leafs top prospect William Nylander used his fantastic speed to force a Russian penalty, and the lethal power play capitalized once again. Gustav Forsling ripped home a game-tying goal through a screen, his second of the game. The kid is a total beast from the point with the man advantage. After missing the previous game with an illness, Adrian Kempe added his second assist of the game, giving the Los Angeles Kings top prospect four points in a pair of games.
Russia battled back and nearly answered, coming inches from scoring the go-ahead goal. A scrum ensued, and a lengthy video review process appeared to halt all of their momentum. There was a sudden shift in the game, and Detroit Red Wings prospect Axel Holmstrom scored the eventual game-winning goal after a beautiful little pass by Oskar Lindblom. It was a classic that lived up to the hype from start to finish, with Sweden's dominant power play being the difference.
With the victory, Sweden moves to 3-0 and has clinched top spot in Group B. They will take on Switzerland in their final game on New Year's Eve, while Russia will look to rebound and take home second in the group with a game against the Czech Republic.