In a game that came down to the very end, Russia outlasted the young Team North America for a 4-3 victory to keep their World Cup hopes very much alive and make things very interesting in Group B.
A four-goal outburst in the second period gave Russia the advantage they were never relinquish, but the game was anything but easy for the veteran-laden team. Led by Connor McDavid, you could say that Team North America was the better team for much of this game.
Despite their best efforts in the third period, the youngsters couldn’t manage to find the equalizer as they suffered their first loss of the World Cup.
Here are the key takeaways from Monday night’s contest.
1. This was the best game of the World Cup so far
Hockey is an unpredictable game and there were few better examples than the game between North America and Russia. Despite a dominant effort from the youngsters, the puck bounced the wrong way for them at a few inopportune times and that was enough to cost them the game.
Russia took advantage of a five-minute outburst in the second period (detailed below) and barely held on the rest of the way.
After North America built up a 1-0 lead in the first period off of a great play between Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews, Russia scored the four straight goals to make it a 4-1 game in the second. Morgan Rielly scored to cut the deficit to two goals at the end of the second period and the third was all about the young guns.
Watching North America try and chip away at the lead Russia built up, however, made for a compelling finish that included a number of close calls. They out-shot Russia 19-4 in the closing 20 minutes, but all they could get past Sergei Bobrovsky was a power-play goal by Ryan Nugent-Hopkins despite the relentless attack.
Johnny Gaudreau and Shayne Gostisbehere nearly tied the game with under a minute to play on separate opportunities. Gaudreau’s chance may have caught a pad before deflecting wide, while Gostisbehere’s bullet from the point clanked off the post. A matter of inches was all that kept this game from going to overtime.
There was so much griping about Team North America before the tournament and I didn’t love the idea either, but that game made it all seem worth it.
2. Four goals on four straight shots made all the difference
The game got flipped on its head over a five-plus minute span midway through the second period. After looking listless, Russia came out of the mid-period TV timeout looking like a different team. They started getting some puck control and all of the sudden, the North American players were scrambling. That’s when Russia started to finally test Matt Murray.
It all started at the 9:29 mark of the second period. Tampa Bay Lightning forward Vladislav Namestnikov had a golden opportunity clank off the post, but the puck then deflected off of goalie Murray’s leg pad and into the net. It was a fortunate bounce, but nothing like the one that benefited Namestnikov’s Lightning teammate Nikita Kucherov less than a minute later.
That was when a North America clearing attempt hit high off a stanchion and bounced right to Kucherov’s stick. He had no one in front of him and immediately whipped a shot under Murray to give Russia 2-1 lead.
A few more minutes passed before Washington Capitals forward Evgeny Kuznetsov took matters into his own hands and made a tremendous end-to-end rush that made it 3-1. After a few more minutes, it was Vladimir Tarasenko ripping a shot past Murray to give the Russians a four-goal lead.
Those goals came on four consecutive shots spread out over that span. That ended Matt Murray’s night and brought on John Gibson. You can’t put all of those on Murray due to the way the puck bounced on him a few times, but it also goes to show just how good Russia can be when they have open looks and how the best teams don’t need much to get going.
Here are the highlights from that break-neck period:
3. Team North America may be without Aaron Ekblad for a while
Just before the game, it was revealed that No. 1 defenseman Aaron Ekblad wouldn’t play after sustaining an “upper-body injury” in Sunday’s win over Finland. To lose a guy who gave them 23 solid minutes against Finland was a tough blow right out of the gates, but North America weathered the storm early.
Jacob Trouba drew into the lineup for Ekblad and held his own. However, the concern now is just how long Ekblad will be out. Team NA is off until Wednesday, but it was reported by ESPN’s Craig Custance that Ekblad sustained a concussion. GM Peter Chiarelli has listed the defenseman as “day-to-day” without confirming the nature of the injury on Sportsnet’s broadcast.
What’s also troubling is that it is believed that Ekblad sustained the reported concussion halfway through the game. He never missed a shift, but then got held out for Monday’s game. That he didn’t come out for extra evaluation is yet another example of the flaws in the NHL’s concussion protocol, which is pretty scary.
If it is indeed a concussion, Ekblad probably won’t have time to recover enough and play. Surely the Florida Panthers wouldn’t want to see a player they recently handed a $60 million extension put at further risk of injury and if they haven’t called already to voice their concern, they will.
If he’s out, it’s a pretty sizable loss for this team as they won’t easily replace his minutes and they’re down to six defensemen, which limits roster flexibility.
4. Sergei Bobrovsky was, by far, the star of the game
Goaltending can be the single biggest difference for a team in these short tournaments and was it ever for Russia Monday night. Bobrovsky, playing in his second game in as many days, made 43 saves including 18 in the third period to help Russia secure the much-needed victory.
You might even be able to credit Bobrovsky’s save on a Connor McDavid breakaway in the second period as the moment that helped turn the game around for Russia. He never gave the talented young forward anything. If it goes to 2-0 at that point, Russia is in big trouble.
Bobrovsky also particularly came up big late in the game, getting a pad on Johnny Gaudreau’s attempt that would have tied it.
The Columbus Blue Jackets goalie played a great game in the tournament-opening loss against Sweden, too. What a comforting sight this must be for Russia and for Columbus, especially after the way Bobrovsky started the 2015-16 season.
Last year, the former Vezina winner went 2-8-0 in October, while posting a putrid .865 save percentage. The bad start set the tone for a terrible year. Now, facing two tremendous teams in back-to-back games, Bobrovsky has 70 saves on 75 shots and looks completely locked in. This should bode well for him as he heads into a big season with the Jackets.
5. Group B is up for grabs now
Sweden, North America and Russia all have a win now in Group B. Sweden takes on Finland Tuesday afternoon to try to take sole possession of first place, but the Finns will be playing with some desperation.
Russia gets two days off to prepare for their preliminary-round finale against Finland Thursday, while North America will have a shorter break. They meet Sweden Wednesday in a game that will have major placement implications no matter the result of the Sweden-Finland game.
Everyone still has something to play for and it remains impossible to predict what will happen next in this loaded group.
Source: CBS Sports Headlines / Russia outlasts North America in World Cup’s best game yet: 5 takeaways