Russia and Denmark took each other on in the first game of the 2016 World Juniors quarter-finals on a cool Saturday afternoon in Helsinki, Finland, to decide which of the two teams would move on to likely face the United States on January 4th in the semis.
The Russians entered the game as the overwhelming favourites, finishing first in Group B with a 3-1-0-0 record, and outscoring their opponents 14 to 7 in those four games. Their preliminary round offense was led by three main players, including Maxim Lazarev (2G, 3A, 5P), Yegor Korshkov (0G, 5A, 5P), and top defenseman Ivan Provorov (0G, 5A, 5P).
Outside of these top three scorers, Russia’s goal scoring has been widely spread between its lines, with nine different players playing a part in their fourteen preliminary round goals; first liner Alexander Polunin led the scoring column for Team Russia, potting two goals against the Belarusians and one against the host Finns.
Denmark’s offense paled in comparison to the Russian scorers during the preliminary round. Of the eight teams reaching the quarterfinals of the 2016 tournament, Denmark’s goal scoring was dead last, as they only managed to score four goals in their four preliminary round games. Luckily for them, goaltender Thomas Lillie outperformed expectations in the round robin, pitching a .916 save percentage in the two games he started; the only goaltenders with better performance were Linus Soderstrom, Alex Nedeljkovic, and Lillie’s quarterfinal opponent, Alexander Georgiev.
Despite being seemingly outmatched by the Russians, nobody should have counted the Danes out before the game began. In their single meeting last year, in a game also heralded as a potential blowout, Denmark pushed the Russians all the way to the shootout before dropping the game 3 to 2. With leading Danish scorers Mathias From and Alexander True playing together on the top Danish line in the quarterfinals, the potential for a huge upset was still very real for both the Russians and the Danes.
Early in the first period, Russian assist leader Yegor Korshkov would finally break his goalless streak, fooling Danish goaltender Thomas Lillie with a wraparound only three minutes into the game to give Russia the early 1-0 lead. It would be Korshkov’s first goal of the tournament, on top of his five preliminary round assists; the sixth point tied him with Finnish defenseman Oli Juolevi for 8th in tournament scoring.
Ten minutes into the period, Denmark made it known that they were not going to bowled over. They hemmed Russia into the offensive zone on two different occasions, forcing two bad Russian icing players. On top of that, fourth line Danish forward William Boysen would lay out a Russian forward in the Russian zone to help energize his underdog team.
As the first period came to a close, the pressure of the game became heavier and heavier for the Russians. As TSN commentators duly pointed out, the longer a supposed ‘favourite’ allows an underdog team to stay in a game, the more confidence and pure will the underdog team can draw from the close game. Going into the second period, the biggest question for the Russians would be if they could expand their lead past 1-0, or if the Danes could continue to generate confidence out of the close game.
Only minutes into the second period, that confidence would come to fruition for the Danes. On a 3-on-2 Danish rush, Denmark’s 13th forward Markus Jensen picked up the puck by the side of the net, maneuvered around goaltender Alexander Georgiev, and put the puck top shelf to tie the game at 1. It would be Jensen’s first goal and first point of the tournament, but perhaps their most important to date.
Only moments later, the Russians would take their first penalty of the game, with fourth line forward Artur Lauta going to the box on a slashing call. The Danes would generate a few good chances on the man advantage, but the best chance actually came for the Russians. With only fifteen seconds remaining in the powerplay, a smart Russian forecheck created a 2-on-1 breakout and resulted in a great chance for Andrei Svetlakov. Unfortunately for Svetlakov, the only thing better than his chance on net was the save by goaltender Thomas Lillie, who kept his underdogs in a tie game with a well positioned save.
With 10 minutes remaining in the second frame, the Russian defense left forward Thomas Olsen wide open in front of the net. Forward Kristian Jensen took a shot on net, which was played very poorly by goaltender Alexander Georgiev; the rebound bounced directly onto the stick of Olsen in front, who unmistakably put the puck past Georgiev to give the Danes an unexpected 2-1 lead.
The Russian panic was on; down 2-1 to the clear underdogs, the Russians had seemingly given up on defensive coverage in favour of plastering Thomas Lillie’s net with burnt rubber. This plan would come to an end, however, when top Russian forward and goalscorer Yegor Korshkov went to the box for a two minute minor, as well as a ten minute hit-to-head penalty. Denmark didn’t convert on the ensuing powerplay, but the loss of Korshkov until the near-halfway point of the third period was of great concern to the Russian squad.
However, as time ran out on the second period, the loss of Korshkov didn’t seem to phase the Russians. They sustained zone pressure on the Danes for two whole minutes, running Denmark ragged and nearly scoring on three different significant chances. Although they failed to convert on that pressure, it could have been a sign of things to come in the third period. The Danes likely hoped it wasn’t.
Only moments into the third period, Denmark took their first penalty of the game. The top powerplay in the tournament, owned by the Russians, would go to work after forward Soren Nielsen took a hooking penalty in the defensive zone. During the powerplay, Danish defenseman Mathias Lassen made his talent known, cutting off the Russian cross-crease pass and stealing a tying goal from the Russians more than twice. Despite the Russians holding the top powerplay in the tournament, they could not convert on the powerplay opportunity.
The first half of the third period was one of pure Russian domination. Although they couldn’t convert during six straight minutes of even strength offensive zone domination, they ran the Danes ragged as they did towards the end of the second period. Yegor Korshkov returned from his twelve-minute elbow-to-the-head penalty to help the Russians push even further on offense, looking for the tying goal.
Russia’s pressure finally became too much for the Danes at the 12:30 mark of the third, as forward Artur Lauta received a pass from Los Angeles Kings prospect Alexander Dergachyov in front of the net and squeaked the puck under the arm of the exceptionally-playing Thomas Lillie to return the game to a 2-2 tie. Now, with only seven minutes left to play, the game had reset to its original state: a tie.
With five and a half minutes remaining in the game, Denmark was not about to let their upset get ruined. After finally winning a faceoff in the defensive zone, the Danes dumped the puck into the Russian zone. After a pass between Russian defensemen was turned over in their own zone, a point shot from defenseman Anders Krogsgaard deflected onto the stick of forward Emil Christensen. Christensen would make no mistake, scoring his first goal of the tournament to put the underdog Danes back in the lead, 3 to 2.
Less than a minute remained in the third period when Russia ruined the Danish upset, pulling their goalie and giving the puck to star forward Vladislav Kamenev. Kamenev fired a shot under the blocker of Thomas Lillie to tie up the game with 44.1 seconds left, disappointing most of the Finnish crowd and the entirety of Twitter. The clock would soon run out on the final frame, bringing the two teams to ten minutes of sudden death overtime.
The Danish dreams finally met reality in overtime, as Russia’s speed and skill dominated Denmark’s hopes. With five minutes left in overtime, Vladislav Kamenev, who scored the tying goal with 45 seconds left, put the puck past Danish goaltender Thomas Lillie to end Denmark’s hopes at advancing to the semi-finals. In the end, the game was a serious scare for the Russians, but they simply outskilled and outplayed the lucky and adrenaline-fueled Danes. They’ll now go on to play the winner of the United States and the Czech Republic in the semi-finals, while Denmark flies home.