HELSINKI, FINLAND – Russia defeated USA 2-1 to advance to the gold medal game against Finland. Meanwhile,Team USA will square off against Sweden for the bronze. Here are three takeaways from the USA-Russia semifinal.
Physicality Trumps Speed
In the early portion of the game Team USA seemed to have the upper hand because of their speed and skill. However, momentum shifted after Team USA got itself into penalty trouble late in the third period. Although Russia couldn’t convert, it seemed to slow the pace of the game down. From there on out, it was all about the Russians physical play.
“Coach said for us to just play a simple game and get the puck to the net,” said Russian defenseman Alexander Mikulovich. “[We had to] hit everybody and play hard against them.”
The Americans were routinely beaten along the walls and couldn’t seem to win physical battles. The Russians leveraged their larger size to wear down Team USA. American defenseman Zach Werenski was stellar through out most of the tournament, but against Russia was overpowered on a few occasions, including on the game deciding goal where Russian forward Yegor Korshkov used a strong power move to crash the net.
— NHL Network (@NHLNetwork) January 4, 2016
The Russians ability to use their size and neutralize the Americans’ speed was the difference in this one. Knowing this, Team Finland should play a similar defensive style game as they did against Sweden in the semifinals and stay committed to their assignments against Russia. Don’t expect the shootout we saw when Russia beat Finland 6-4 in the preliminary round.
Alex Nedeljkovic Stood Tall in Net
The only reason Team USA hung onto their one-goal lead for as long as they did is because of the play of goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic. The netminder came up particularly big during the second period when Team Russia controlled play for most of the frame.
Oh my god this save from Nedeljkovic pic.twitter.com/vktvpwNU0h
— Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) January 4, 2016
Nedeljkovic never seemed to panic and remained positionally sound even during moments of chaos. However it was only a matter of time before Russia would breakthrough, given their relentless attack. If a bounce or two would have gone differently, Nedeljkovic would have stolen this game from Russia, just as Team Sweden’s Linus Soderstrom did against USA in the preliminary round.
Auston Matthews & USA’s Top Line Was Shut Down
Unfortunately for Team USA, there best players weren’t difference makers. Projected first-overall pick Auston Matthews didn’t stand out on the ice, as the Russian defense contained him. Together with Colin White and Matthew Tkachuk, the Americans top line didn’t scratch the scoresheet.
On several occassions Tkachuk took the puck beyond the net to try and create something, but the Americans were too set on forcing the puck to the slot, even though their was no open space; instead they should have been getting pucks to the net. The closest Tkachuk came was when he rang the puck square off of the post.
Team Russia remained committed to their physical game no matter what the matchup on the ice was. “We need to play hard against everyone,” said Mikulovich. “It doesn’t matter if it’s [Auston Matthews] or the fourth line.”
Team USA will hope to execute better against Team Sweden and avenge their 1-0 preliminary round loss so they don’t go back home without any hardware.