The first ever European SF in WW18 history produced an absorbing encounter – but ended in heartbreak for a brave Russian team after more superb Swedish defence.
Sweden – and goalie Anna Amholt in particular – proved to be Russia’s nemesis once again as the host nation came up agonisingly short in the World U18 Women’s Championship in Dmitrov.
Both teams were aiming for a first ever appearance in the gold medal game, and Russia was seeking revenge for a 0-2 loss in the group phase, but it was another resilient defensive display that saw the Swedes progress with a 2-1 verdict in a nail-biting encounter.
For head coach Ylva Martinsen, part of the only other European women’s team to reach the finals of a major championship at the Turin Olympics in 2006, it was a special moment.
“In Sweden’s eyes we are making history,” she said. “We have never been in this final before, and we have not been in any final at a major women’s chapionship for such a long time. This team, our girls have already won so much here.
“Of course, it was 12 years ago and these girls would have been very young, so I don’t know if they are really aware that Kim Martin and I were part of what happening in Turin. But I hope in the future they were properly understand what a huge step they have taken for women’s hockey and Sweden and in Europe.”
The first period lacked clear cut chances at either end, but produced an absorbing battle as both teams refused to give up an inch of the ice. That continued into the middle frame as Sweden stuck to the game plan that worked on Tuesday, focussing on resilient defence to frustrate Russia and limit the chances for Yevgeni Bobariko’s girls. Then, on the counter-attack, the Tre Kronor struck. A power play chance saw Josefin Bouveng open the scoring after she collected the puck out on the boards, circled around Oxana Bratisheva and fired a wrist shot beyond Diana Farkhutdinova to open the scoring midway through the game.
Russia almost managed an instant response when Bartisheva fed Daria Beloglazova at the far post, but the Tornado forward misjudged her shot and the chance went wide. Soon after, Beloglazova herself got away from Sweden’s Sofie Lundin but found little support in the middle. The puck was half-cleared as far as Alexandra Budanova, but Amholt had plenty of time to get behind her shot.
There were more anxious moments for Amholt as the period drew on, with Alina Orlova getting into the thick of the attack and finding the side netting as Russia worked hard for a tying goal. But Sweden was not done either, and Agnes Wilhelmsson caused panic in front of Farkhutdinova as her pass from behind the net saw three Swedes attempt a shot before the Russians could clear their lines.
Russia came out swinging in the third period, knowing its gold medal dreams were fading in the face of a resolute Swedish defence. But 85 seconds of 5-on-3 power play could not produce a goal as the yellow jerseys blocked all routes to the net.
Finally, after almost 109 minutes and 44 saves across the two games between the countries here, Russia finally managed to beat Amholt. And the goal, when it came, was a bit special. Ilona Markova collected the puck out wide and, like Bouveng before her, circled across the zone. This time, an angled shot found an almost impossible path through a thicket of legs and skates leaving Amholt unsighted.
The celebration raised the noise levels in Dmitrov’s Ice Palace to new, perhaps unprecedented levels as Markova’s team-mates rushed to congratulate her. But in the rush of emotion and adrenaline, the Russians stumbled into a familiar problem. Fired up, and desperate to get ahead in the game, the team took another penalty and Sweden quickly regained the lead. Captain Maja Nylen Persson, who today learned that she would join Sweden’s Olympic team in Korea next month, brought play into the Russian zone and fed Lina Ljungblom for a shot. Farkhutdinova got behind that one, but the ensuing scramble saw Jenny Antonsson stuff in the rebound to make it 2-1.
For goalscorer Markova, it was a bitter blow. Fighting back tears after the game, she said: “This was the most important game of my life and I was willing to die out there on that ice. I just wish we could turn back time. I can’t quite believe that it’s over and we didn’t score that second goal.”
If Russia’s troubles stemmed from its penalties, Sweden managed to place itself in peril with a string of minors of its own. At one point there were three players in the sin bin as the host nation got an extended spell of 5-on-3 action. Once again, though, Sweden toughed it out, getting bodies in the way and denying Russia any chance to get inside the D and enjoy a close look at Amholt’s net. There was even a moment as danger at the other end when Ljungblom broke clear, only to be denied by Farkhutdinova.
By the time the teams were back to even strength, there were less than five minutes to play and Sweden had renewed belief that it could claim the win. Russia finished the game playing 6-on-4 after another penalty against the Swedes, but was unable to force the action into overtime.
Head coach Yevgeni Bobariko applauded the Swedish performance, especially the contributions of Amholt and the defence. “It was a really good game but we scored one goal less than them,” he said. “We had one or two chances where maybe we should have scored, but the Swedish goalie was superb and their defence was brilliant.”
Sweden now advances to face the USA in Saturday’s Gold Medal showdown; Russia faces off against Canada for bronze.