Sergei Bobrovsky saves Russia’s World Cup of Hockey hopes

TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 19: Connor McDavid #97 of Team North America tries to get the puck past Sergei Bobrovsky #72 of Team Russia during the World Cup of Hockey 2016 at Air Canada Centre on September 19, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/World Cup of Hockey via Getty Images)
Connor McDavid #97 of Team North America tries to get the puck past Sergei Bobrovsky #72 of Team Russia. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/World Cup of Hockey via Getty Images)

TORONTO – It was about five minutes into the second period on Monday night. Team North America had a 1-0 lead, and the puck on star Connor McDavid’s stick during a breakaway.

Russia’s goalie, Sergei Bobrovsky, stayed low. He gave McDavid nothing. The 18-year-old Edmonton Oilers center pulled up to make a move, sending a flurry of ice shavings into Bobrovsky’s mask as he slid slightly to his right. The puck deflected, and trickled wide.

“That was the most important shot in my life,” Bobrovsky said.

In hindsight, that might not be hyperbole. It was a save that changed the World Cup of Hockey preliminary game.

At 9:29 of the second, Russia tied it; by the 15:43 mark, Russia had its fourth goal on four shots, chasing Team North America goalie Matt Murray. Bobrovsky would make 43 saves in total on Tuesday night, giving his team new life in the World Cup with a 4-3 win against the explosive U-23 team.

“We were desperate tonight. Every moment, every shot, I was focused,” said Bobrovsky.

That the Russians could score was never in dispute. That the Russians could play enough defense to win the World Cup was a point of debate. The great equalizer was the team’s goaltending, with Bobrovsky getting the start in their first two games – a 27-save effort in a 2-1 loss to Sweden, and his brilliant stifling of the high-octane North Americans in their second game.

“He was unbelievable,” said Alex Ovechkin, Russia’s captain. “That’s what we want from him, to keep us in the game. Bobrovsky gave us a chance.”

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The loss to Sweden was crushing. Russia caught the tournament favorites without starting goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who was ill, and couldn’t capitalize. “We lose that game, and I felt bad. It was hard to call my family. They want to win [too],” said forward Evgeny Kuznetsov, who scored a brilliant goal of his own against North America. “Like I said in the morning, you’re going to see a different team tonight, and you did.”

The Russians stayed in the game despite the North Americans controlling the fast pace in the first period, and nearly extending the lead in the second. The momentum shifted when Vladislav Namestnikov scored his first of the tournament. “If we stick to the system, get pucks deep, it’s hard to play against us,” he said.

Nikita Kucherov scored 50 seconds later for the 2-1 lead. Then it was Kuznetsov’s goal – and FIFA-inspired celebration – to make it 3-1. Vladimir Tarasenko of the St. Louis Blues scored at 15:43 to cap the rally.

How did that happen?

“I think some hockey god got on our side and we just got good luck. We started making more simple,” said Kuznetsov.

“We just, I think, started playing simple, keep the puck in their zone,” said Ovechkin. “They make turnovers and we can see after I think second shift when we kill the penalty, we have chances. After that we just keep going and keep pushing our game and you can see result: we score four goals.”

Murray, who was pulled in favor of goalie John Gibson, said, “We just gave them way too much space. I thought we might have sat back a little bit. When you sit back against a team like that they’re going to come at you a hundred miles per hour and it’s not easy to defend. We just gave them way too much space and you can’t with that lineup. You just can’t.”

North America crept back into it with a Morgan Rielly goal at 17:56 and then a Ryan Nugent-Hopkins goal at 3:01 of the third period on the power play. But Bobrovsky (and his post, on a blistering Shane Gostisbehere shot late in the third) shut the door.

“He’s super professional,” said Kuznetsov of Bobrovsky. “I feel safe with all three goalies. They call can play. That’s probably my best group of goalies. I know [Braden] Holtby is best, but I feel super, super, super confident in them.”

So the old guard beat the young guns to revive their World Cup hopes, entering Thursday’s preliminary round finale against Finland.

Well, sorta.

On a night when the best and brightest young players in Canada and the United States were given the spotlight on Team North America, all four Russian goal scorers were themselves under the age of 25. No Ovechkin. No Malkin. No Datsyuk. Youth was served, with Russian flair.

Not that it mattered who had the tallies, at least to Kuznetsov.

“We don’t really care who scores. We needed the win to stay alive,” he said.

“We did it. We won the game. We feel like a family.”

Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.

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