Today, Russia and Belarus faced off on Day 4 of the 2016 World Juniors, both hoping to leave their third games of the tournament with three points in their pockets. Going into the game, both teams were on opposite sides of the Group B spectrum. Russia sat in the top spot, with a regulation win against Finland and a shootout win over Czech Republic guiding them; on the other hand, Belarus looked to eek out even a single point after dropping their first two games to Finland and Slovakia.

Two games into the World Juniors, the Russians have faced two solid opponents and had to work their way back from deficits in both games. On Day 1, against the Czech Republic, Russia didn’t score until the 49-minute mark, where forward Artur Lauta managed to squeak one by Czech goalie Vitek Vanecek to tie the game 1-1; the game would later go to the shootout, where Maxim Lazarev ensured a win for the Russians.

In their second game, on Day 3, Russia went down early to the Finns, with goals by Sebastian AhoPatrik Laine, and Aleksi Saarela putting Finland up 3-1. This wouldn’t stop Russia, though, as they worked back from 3-1 to score three powerplay goals and one even-strength marker in the second period, coming back to lead 5-3 and eventually winning the game 6 to 4.

In their first two games, the Russians executed well on the powerplay, going 3-for-7 in their first two games, tied for first in the tournament with Canada. Their offense was led by Cape Breton Screaming Eagles forward Maxim Lazarev (1G, 2A, 3P) and Lokomotiv Yaroslavl’s Yegor Korshkov (0G, 3A, 3P). The game against Belarus would also mark the first start of the tournament for Metallurg Magnitogorsk rookie goaltender, Ilya Samsonov, drafted in the first round of the 2015 NHL Draft by the Washington Capitals.

After two wins in two tough tests against Finland and the Czech Republic, Russia had a good reason to feel confident before their game against Belarus, seen by many as much lesser opponents destined for the relegation round. Before the game, Belarus only had two goals in two games, with their offense led by a variety of skaters with one point a piece. In nets, goaltender Ivan Kulbakov would not be dressed, after he was injured during Belarus’ game against Slovakia on Sunday; replacing him in net would be back-up goaltender Vladislav Verbitski, who had stopped 13 of 14 shots against Slovakia.

Ilya Samsonov would be tested by the Belarusians early, as Detroit Red Wings prospect Yevgeni Svechnikov took a boarding penalty just two minutes into the game, putting Belarus on the powerplay. Belarus kept sustained zone pressure during the powerplay, with forward Danila Karaban almost scoring from the side of the net, but couldn’t capitalize on their early opportunity to take a surprise lead.

After the powerplay ended, the Russians began to unsurprisingly dominate the offensive aspect of the game, hemming the Belarusians into their zone for near-minutes at a time, and getting multiple great chances on Vladislav Verbitski. Belarusian forward Alexei Busko would soon take a bad penalty on Russian forward Yevgeni Svechnikov, putting the Russians on the powerplay. During the powerplay, Russia’s leading scorer Maxim Lazarev would finish a beautiful PP set-up for his second goal and fourth point of the tournament, giving Russia the 1-0 lead.

With five minutes remaining in the first period, Belarus would take another tripping penalty; this time, it would be called on defenseman Pavel Vorobei. Continuing to utilize their quick-and-short passing powerplay technique, the Russians would once again take advantage of the 5-on-4, as Alexander Polunin finished a beautiful Pavel Kraskovski pass all alone in front of the net to double Russia’s lead.

Still, Russia did not let up on the Belarusians. Only minutes after Polunin’s goal, Russian defenseman Ivan Provorov scored the third Russian goal in just the first twenty minutes, giving Russia their first even-strength goal of the game and a 3-0 lead over Belarus. Russia would enter the second period with the lead, hoping to build on it to ensure a victory worth three points against the lesser Belarusians.

Early in the second period, Russia continued to pressure the Belarusians in their own zone, giving Vladislav Verbitski the chance to stand on his head and make some great stops, much as his fellow goaltender Ivan Kulbakov had in Belarus’ previous two games. Towards the middle mark of the period, Belarus managed to put some pressure on the Russians, giving goaltender Ilya Samsonov his first real test of the tournament. Samsonov played the chances well, using his good lateral ability and leg coordination to make some impressive stops on two different Belarusian rushes.

With three minutes remaining in the second frame, Russia appeared to score another goal, as defenseman Ivan Provorov put the puck past Vladislav Verbitski on a quick wraparound play. However, forward Evgeny Svechnikov was pushed into Verbitski by a Belarusian defender, and the goal was called off due to Svechnikov having a foot (and the entire rest of his body) in the crease when the goal was scored. Verbitski and his Belarusian teammates managed to hold off the Russian offense machine for the remainder of the second period, and the score remained 3-0 going into the third period.

Early in the third period, Belarusian forward Danila Karaban took an irresponsible penalty in his own zone, slashing the stick of Evgeny Svechnikov’s out of Svechnikov’s hands and putting Russia on the powerplay for two minutes. It was Svechnikov’s third drawn penalty of the game; the standout Red Wings prospect and his linemates Maxim Lazarev and Vladislav Kamenev were the brightest stars for the Russians in this game, although they couldn’t capitalize on the powerplay opportunity.

With fifteen minutes remaining in the game, the Russians continued to dominate zone time and puck possession over Belarus. At one point, Maxim Lazarev missed a wide open net as Vladislav Verbitski was down outside of his crease; the follow-up rush by Belarus resulted in a goal scored by Belarusian forward Alex Patsinkin, putting Belarus on the board for the first time in the game and cutting the Russian lead to two.

However, that wouldn’t last long, as first liner Pavel Kraskovski fired a pass to his linemate Alexander Polunin, who put the puck home past Verbitski to restore the three-goal lead for Russia, likely eliminating any chance of a comeback upset for the Belarusians. The goal was Polunin’s third of the tournament in three games, and his second goal against Belarus.

Polunin’s second goal would be the final goal of the game, as Russia clinched a 4-1 win over Belarus in their third game of the tournament.  earned Player of the Game honours for Russia, while Alexei Busko did the same for Belarus.

Russia’s next game will be on New Years Eve against the Slovakian side, where a win in regulation will clinch a 1st place finish in Group A, making Denmark their likely quarterfinal opponent. Belarus plays their final game of the round robin, and likely of their tournament, against the Czech Republic tomorrow.

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