The showdown of the goalies. When Sweden decided to give draft eligible Jesper Wallstedt his first start of his World Juniors career, all goaltender lovers must have began to salivate. A game where they could watch both Yaroslav Askarov and Wallstedt simultaneously? Oh yes, come to mama.
Both goaltenders are considered generational talents and the clear positional leaders of their respective draft classes. Tonight, it took 37 seconds before one of them seemed to have lost his possibility of a shutout.
Physical captain Vasili Podkolzin drove the puck toward the goal and pushed himself past Edmonton Oilers’ prodigy Philip Broberg, who gave up way too much room in front of Wallstedt. Rodion Amirov found the rebound and backhanded it into the net. However, Podkolzin had disturbed the Swedish goaltender enough in the crease to warrant a further review of the situation. In the end, the referres stuck to their initial call. The goal was disallowed and Wallstedt could continue to dream of a clean sheet.
Team Russia did not get let down by this. They continued to grind and play an inspired offensive game while Sweden had problems getting anything going. Seven minutes in, the Russians would get rewarded for their efforts. When the Swedish defencemen couldn’t decide who should play the puck, Arseni Gritsyuk stole the puck behind the net. Mikhail Abramov quickly discovered Yegor Afanasyev in the crease and the latter broke the tie.
Mikhail Abramov (TOR) with a beautiful assist. Afanasyev (NSH) with the goal.— Kevin Papetti (@KPapetti) December 31, 2020
1-0 Russia. pic.twitter.com/ckguUZ1aAI
If it wasn’t for Wallstedt playing a very solid first period, Russia may have had a bigger lead. Instead, the Swedes managed to tie the game with one of their first coordinated offensive outputs of the night. Again, the defenders left an opponent alone in the crease. This time, on the other side of the ice. Vancouver Canucks seventh-rounder Arvid Costmar took advantage of the opportunity and whipped it through Askarov and in.
Before the period break, Team Russia would get their second power play of the night. Podkolzin made a heads-up play and found Amirov in front of the net. Wallstedt was out of position and Amirov tapped it home. This time, there was nothing for the referees to take a further look at and Russia had regained their lead.
Sweden spent nearly half the second period on the power play, but without finding anything of value. Instead, the game-tier would come out of a tangled situation where Alexander Holtz first missed an open net and then took his own rebound behind the net and just sent it into the back of Askarov. The puck slowly moved back across the line, while the Russian netminder got down like a turtle on his back in an unsuccessful attempt to block.
Sweden grew into the game and demonstrated the heaviness of their overall roster as the Russian skaters seemed to lose their poise and become increasingly more fatigued. Askarov, who can seem a bit jittery at times, put his team on his back here and carried them forward to remain in the game.
I wrote earlier that Sweden had problems delivering during their many power plays. During the middle of the third period, goalscorer Holtz went to the box for a hooking in front of the own net, giving Russia their second attempt of the night playing one man up.
After challenging the Swedish goaltender a couple of times, draft eligible defenceman Kirill Kirsanov delivered a rocket from the left which went in off the post. Undersized center Marat Khusnutdinov contributed with a perfect screen on the Swedish goalie.
Costmar continued to be a threat for the Russians, both as an annoying pest and by being dangerous around the net. He hit the post with two minutes left to play.
Interim head coach Joel Ronnmark removed Wallstedt with a minute-and-a-half to go and it resulted in a third game tying goal for his team, who just don’t want to quit on their near 15 year streak without a group stage loss.
Noel Gunler may not have scored the prettiest goal of his life, but it certainly is one of his more important to date. Holtz released a slap shot from the slot which ricocheted off Gunler’s body to beat Askarov.
Overtime in an exciting primetime game the day before New Year’s. What more can one ask of life?
Sweden trotted out three top ten selections from the previous NHL Drafts as their top unit. Both Askarov and Wallstedt came up strong for their teams and the game looked to be destined for a shootout.
With 25 seconds to go, Costmar received a holding minor and Russia got to end the OT playing four-on-three. Khusnutdinov remained alert on an Amirov rebound and with 5,6 seconds left on the clock, Team Russia had ended Sweden’s impossible streak at 54 straight groupstage wins.
THE STREAK SLAYER!!!— Kevin Papetti (@KPapetti) December 31, 2020
Marat Khusnutdinov (MIN) ends Sweden's 54 game winning streak in the preliminary round. Amirov (TOR) with the assist. pic.twitter.com/0bEChE06vR
Russia can now look forward to a couple of days off, as they are through to the quarter finals. Sweden meanwhile, face another top opponent tomorrow in Team USA. Will the next streak start tomorrow already, or has the bubble finally burst?
The only thing we can know for sure is that the final game of Group B will be one to watch.