Team Russia defeated the United States 5-3 in each team’s first game of the 2021 World Juniors. Russia jumped out to an early lead, scoring before the Americans even registered a shot, but the United States was able to fight back and even the score at 1 after the first period. The United States failed to register a shot through the first 12 minutes of action, but the American second line was able to put together a strong shift and found the equalizer.
The Russians broke the game open in the second period, potting three goals despite being outshot 10-7 and being shorthanded for a brief time. Down 4-1 after two periods, the United States made a strong push late and had the lead down to one goal as time ran down. An empty-net goal from Russia sealed the deal, but the resilience of the American squad was just one of the many takeaways from this highly anticipated matchup.
Askarov vs. Knight
One of the points of emphasis going into this matchup was the goaltending matchup. Many consider these two teams to have the best goaltenders in the entire tournament, but this game showed that both netminders are human. Spencer Knight had a strong warm-up game against Finland, not allowing a goal at even-strength. However, in this matchup he surrendered four goals on 12 shots and was pulled late in the second period. It will be worth monitoring if he or Dustin Wolf draws the start against Austria.
Yaroslav Askarov was very strong early, showing his strengths in playing the puck as well as his traditional goaltending technique. As the United States surged late in the game to attempt a comeback, he faltered at times and gave the American team hope. After an uncharacteristically inconsistent performance at last year’s tournament, Askarov will need to piece together full 60-minute efforts if Russia wants to compete for a medal.
Russia’s Play in Transition
The key to success for the Russians was their ability to generate chances from turnovers and off the rush. Russia scored two of its goals as a result of turnovers from Knight playing the puck, and another on the break after blocking a United States point shot. Carolina Hurricanes prospect Vasili Ponomarev opened the scoring and added another goal in the second period to extend Russia’s lead.
Capitalizing on these chances allowed Team Russia to piece together a strong second period and put the game out of reach. Sloppy play by the United States in all three zones continued to give Team Russia opportunities, and they made them count more often than not. If Russia can continue to force turnovers and create odd-man situations, they will be a team to watch in the tournament.
USA’s Boldy-Beniers-Caufield Line
After a strong showing from its top line in the exhibition against Finland, the United States had its second line steal the show against Russia. Cole Caufield, who scored twice in the warm-up, was prevalent yet again, consistently creating opportunities including setting up Philadelphia Flyers prospect Cam York for the United States’ opening goal. Matthew Boldy got the primary assist on the goal, as the Minnesota Wild prospect provided just enough of a screen in front of Askarov to allow the goal.
Boldy, Beniers and Caufield were the team’s most consistent line, generating scoring chances throughout the game, especially when the top line and power play weren’t able to get much done. The power play finally broke through late in the game, but most of the chances came from this trio. Beniers, who is eligible for the 2021 NHL Entry Draft, is boosting his draft stock already with his skating ability and knack for generating chances. More consistency from both of the top two lines could keep the United States competitive throughout the tournament.
Despite the ups and downs on both sides, the United States and Russia are both poised to make deep runs in this tournament. With strong goaltending and deep forward groups, these could very well be the top two teams in Group B when all is said and done.
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Covering the New York Islanders and Seattle Kraken for The Hockey Writers. MBA Sports & Entertainment Management Candidate at Hofstra University. Formerly Marketing Intern with the American Flag Football League & Operations Intern for the Long Island Nets, G-League Affiliate of the Brooklyn Nets.