Russia 5 Switzerland 2 (2-0, 1-2, 2-0)
Saturday’s game was all about how Russia would cope with the disappointment of its semi-final loss against the USA 24 hours earlier. On paper, there was little sign that the Swiss – something of A Cinderella team in this competition – could live with Valery Bragin’s skillful roster. In the group phase, Russia had won 7-4 against the same opposition. But the obvious pain Russia’s youngsters felt after that narrow loss robbed them of a chance to win gold made it clear that the coaching staff would need to turn around those emotions fast to ensure that this game felt like a chance to leave on a high, rather than a chore to be endured before heading home.
However, Slepets admitted after the game that it wasn’t easy to switch off the emotions of the previous evening. “Yesterday hurt but today we came out with nothing but a medal in our thoughts,” he told Match TV. “Even so, I would have traded a hat-trick today for one goal in the semi-final.”
In the event, Russia made another fast start and Slepets opened the scoring in the fifth minute, breaking off the boards and deking past Luka Hollenstein. Before the intermission, Nikita Shashkov doubled Russia’s lead when he fired high to the stick side off a Vasily Podkolzin feed. Shashkov, notoriously, was denied a goal in that semi-final loss; the Sibir man produced the perfect response here.
Podkolzin, one of the youngest players at the tournament, said: “It was an emotional tournament. I’ll remember it for the rest of my life. This was a real team, a family. Lots of things went against us today but in the end our team won.”
Shashkov added: “We’re really thrilled, and I think everyone back home will be happy too. The Swiss had a really good team at this tournament and we played a tough game with them in the group and again here. For the first 10 minutes we were well on top but then things stopped working so well for us. Before the third period, we sat down and said that we needed to get this medal. It all finished well, so I’m happy.”
As Shashkov pointed out, Switzerland was not about to roll over. Unfancied throughout the tournament, Christian Wohlwend’s team had repeatedly punched above its weight to get this far. In the second period, it handed Russia a reminder that there were two teams in the game. Valentin Nussbaumer halved the deficit when he was given rather too much time to himself on the crease and the largely Canadian crowd got behind the underdog. Klim Kostin, Russia’s captain, went some way towards quelling the storm with a third goal; Grigory Denisenko’s assist took him to 9 (4+5) points for the tournament and gives him the lead in the scoring race ahead of the gold medal game while Alexander Romanov’s helper moved him to 8 (1+7) points and a clear lead among production from blue liners. The CSKA D-man later commented that a bronze medal won in Canada was worth its weight in gold.
Still the Swiss battled. Pyotr Kochetkov was sent sprawling all over the paintwork in a desperate bid to keep the puck away before finally Yannick Bruschweiler swatted one home to make it 2-3 going into the third. And Switzerland kept up the pressure after the intermission – in the end it would out-shoot Russia 36-24 but found Kochetkov in an unyielding mood.
At the other end, Slepets was having no such troubles in putting the puck in the net. Early in the third he launched a breakout from center ice and duly slid the biscuit between Hollenstein’s pads. Late on, he completed his hat-trick into an empty net to crown another medal-winning performance. The result confirms the 11th World Junior bronze for Russia or the USSR since the tournament’s official inception in 1977. At least one of the latest additions already has a new home waiting for it.
“My mom keeps all my medals,” Slepets said. “She takes each one and looks after it properly. Today it didn’t matter how we played. All that mattered was winning the bronze.”