Rinat Valiev could barely contain his excitement.
The Russian defenceman, a Maple Leafs prospect, is going to the gold medal game at the world junior hockey championship.
“Best experience in my life,” said Valiev after Russia dispatched Sweden 4-1 Sunday in the semifinals. “I’ve been waiting for this all my life. I’m pretty excited.”
It’s Russia’s first shot at gold since 2012, when they lost to Sweden. The Russians last won gold in 2011 in Buffalo, that 5-3 come-from-behind win over Canada.
This team is a lot like that one, struggling through the preliminary round but getting stronger through adversity.
“That was not our plan,” said Valiev, who has two assists in the tournament. “We just tried to play hard every game, do as much as we can. We just played like one team, tried hard, everybody supported each other.
“The guys talked on the bench: don’t get frustrated, support each other.”
The Russians went 2-2 in the preliminary round, including a tighter than expected 3-2 win over Denmark in the opener. That put a scare into Russia, said Valiev.
“We talked (after that game) a lot about how we should be ready for the game, prepare for the game,” said Valiev.
They soon adopted a team-first approach. If there’s been flaw in Russian teams in international play, it’s been the me-first approach of some stars.
“We play like one team,” said Valiev. “That’s an important thing to us, trying to play physical and trying to play like one team, support each other.”
The Russians played a physical game, driving to the net to produce goals. Alexander Sharov scored twice against Sweden and leads Russia with four goals and one assist. Sharov went undrafted last June, but remains eligible this year.
Sweden had won its last six matchups against Russia in the world juniors, and now must play for bronze.
“I’m very disappointed,” said Swedish centre William Nylander, another Leafs prospect. “We — myself included — didn’t come out and play the way we did the past couple of games. It’s too bad.
“They were good, but we were nowhere near our capabilities.”