For Wild fans, there was a lot of excitement surrounding this matchup between Team USA and Team Russia, as it would pit three of Minnesota’s top prospects, Luke Kunin and Jordan Greenway for USA and Kirill Kaprizov for Russia, against one another for the first time. Kaprizov entered the game as the leading scorer in the tournament, with seven points in just two games, including a hat trick against Latvia. The dynamic forward, on pace for one of the best under-20 seasons in the history of the KHL, is a potential all-world player. When his current contract expires in Russia, the Wild organization will surely pull out all the stops to ensure that he gets signed to his entry-level deal immediately. And for fans of Team USA in general, there was also a lot of excitement surrounding this game, as it would be the first real test for the Americans against a powerful hockey nation in this year’s World Junior Championship. Team Russia entered the game with one win (Latvia) and one loss (Canada), while USA had won both of its games (Slovakia and Latvia). This game would certainly live up to the hype.
Russia came within a couple inches of scoring just two minutes into the game, when a puck bounced off the end wall, hit the rear end of USA goaltender Tyler Parsons, and nearly trickled across the goal line. It was a quick reminder that the Americans would not be able to glide through this one, as they had against Latvia and Slovakia. The US seemed to be taking a more cautious approach early, keeping a forward high in the offensive zone to prevent the odd-man rushes that they gave up frequently in their opening game. It would pay off early, as Russia attacked with speed a few times in the opening minutes, but any opportunities off the rush were snuffed out by good retreats back into the defensive zone. USA also got the scoring started early, when Casey Fitzgerald fired a pass all the way from the bottom of the right circle to the bottom of the left circle, where Boston University’s Clayton Keller, who has starred for the US so far in the tournament, received the pass and took advantage of Russian goaltender Ilya Samsonov sliding across the crease, as he anticipated a quick shot from Keller. Keller opted to hold the puck, though, and made a move to his backhand that completely fooled Samsonov and left the net wide open. Keller deposited the puck in the back of the net while falling to the ice, a beautiful goal for the future Arizona Coyote, and a perfect start for the United States. Samsonov would weather a huge US storm over the next five minutes though, as the Americans peppered him with several point-blank shots and prime scoring chances.
Russia was very fortunate to maintain just a 1-0 deficit as the game reached the ten-minute mark, with the US having already registered fifteen shots on goal by that point in the period. Samsonov held off the US for just long enough to allow his team to level the score. After Greenway flattened an opponent at the red line, Russia gained control of the puck in the neutral zone, and Yakov Trenin streaked into the offensive zone along the right half wall. He lofted the puck in front of the net, to where Greenway was battling with Kirill Urakov, but the puck bounced off of Urakov and over the leg of Parsons, tying the game for Russia, and sending the teams to the dressing room for the first intermission.
Team USA would be the first to score in the second frame as well. Four minutes into the period, with the US on the power play, Charlie McAvoy sent a puck toward the Russian net, which was deflected and slowly fluttered toward Samsonov. Greenway was right in front of the goaltender, and clearly took away his eyes, as the puck bounced off of Samsonov’s pad and straight to red-hot Colin White, who was on the doorstep and calmly slid it into the wide open net. Several minutes later, just after killing off its first penalty of the game, Erik Foley would fire a pass from the corner, which the University of Denver’s Troy Terry would neatly deflect from the top of the crease to give Team USA its first two-goal lead of the game. A couple minutes after Terry’s goal, Greenway made a beautiful saucer pass to line-mate Jeremy Bracco, but Samsonov robbed Bracco with perhaps the save of the tournament, rolling on his back and throwing his left pad up in the air to deny the Maple Leafs’ prospect. It apparently picked the Russian squad up a bit, because when they went on the man advantage soon after the Samsonov robbery, Kaprizov deflected a wrist shot from Yegor Rykov out of the air, beating Parsons and pulling Russia within one goal yet again. It was Kaprizov’s fifth goal of the tournament.
The third period turned into a true goalie duel, as Parsons made several game-saving stops on Kaprizov and company. Samsonov was equally stout at the other end, denying a barrage of power play shots. He even turned away a Tage Thompson penalty shot in the final two minutes, when Sergei Zborovsky deliberately and obviously pushed the net off its moorings during a scramble in front of the net. It was Parsons with the last laugh though, as in the closing seconds of the game, Kaprizov lofted a perfect area pass to the slot for teammate Alexander Polunin. Parsons made an enormous save on Polunin to seal the victory for Team USA, and he finished the game with 25 saves.
Kunin and Greenway were two of the best players on the ice for the US on Thursday, with Kunin making an impact on seemingly every aspect of the American game, including the power play, penalty kill, and being responsible on the defensive end of the ice. Greenway played like an absolute beast, using his big size to impart his will on the Russian defense. Meanwhile, Kaprizov lived up to his billing by scoring yet another goal and producing at least five quality scoring chances in the game. He may be an elite player in the NHL in just a couple of years. Get ready, Wild fans, because this guy is special.
The US passed its first big test, and its hope for a medal should be on the rise. They are definitely skilled, have solid goaltending, and they defeated a very good Russian team with a tenacious effort on Thursday. Team USA closes out its preliminary schedule on Saturday, when it takes on Canada at 2:30PM Central. USA will have a chance to win its group and take one of the top seeds into the Quarterfinals, should it find a way to beat the favored Canadians.
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