Russia confident in captain Kuznetsov

Russia's Yevgeni Kuznetsov celebrates after a goal against Canada by teammate Alexander Khoklachev...

Russia's Yevgeni Kuznetsov celebrates after a goal against Canada by teammate Alexander Khoklachev in the second period of play during the semi-final of the 2012 IIHF U20 World Junior Hockey Championship in Calgary, Alberta, January 3, 2012. (REUTERS/Andy Clark)

WES GILBERTSON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:15 PM ET

Nobody has collected as many points.

Nobody has made as many enemies.

And, heading into Thursday's gold-medal matchup with Sweden at the Saddledome, nobody seems to be having as much fun at the world junior tournament as Team Russia captain Evgeni Kuznetsov.

If this guy is feeling any pressure, he's certainly not showing it.

"Well, he won a gold medal last year," reasoned Russian legend Igor Larionov, a three-time Stanley Cup champion and Hockey Hall-of-Famer who's attending the world juniors as a player agent.

"So what do you have to lose? You've already been a champion. You have a chance to lead the way to the young guys. That's what he's been doing."

Kuznetsov didn't talk to the media after Wednesday's practice at WinSport Canada Athletic & Ice Complex, but that didn't stop everybody else from talking about him.

The Washington Capitals prospect has only hit the scoresheet in two games so far -- a near-record nine points against Latvia in the round-robin and a four-point effort against Team Canada in Tuesday's semifinal showdown -- but still owns the tournament scoring lead.

He also seems to relish his status as a villain at the Saddledome, fuelled by his on-ice celebrations and inflammatory comments about the patriotic crowd.

"He is funny guy. He is funny in life. He is funny in the rink and on the ice," said Kuznetsov's linemate, Nail Yakupov. "He's not funny 24 hours in the day, but sometimes in the dressing room, in the rink. When we have a game, he just stays focused and talks to the guys, like, 'C'mon guys, we want to win something.'

"He is a good captain. He is a good guy and he helps the team."

Kuznetsov is the only returnee from Russia's golden group in Buffalo and will try to lead his country to a second consecutive celebration in Thursday's tournament finale.

The Swedes, who finished fourth last winter after a three-year medal spree at the world juniors, haven't won gold at this event since 1981.

Despite having to field questions about losing two potential teammates in the September plane crash that killed the players and staff of the Kontinental Hockey League's Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, the Russians have undoubtedly been the most relaxed squad at this tournament.

Maybe, too relaxed.

In their roundrobin finale against Team Sweden on New Year's Eve, the Russians watched a three-goal lead evaporate in the third period and eventually suffered a 4-3 overtime setback.

After surviving another extra-time scare from the Czechs in a 2-1 quarterfinal thriller, they skated to a 6-1 lead against Canada in Tuesday's semifinal but had to hang on for a 6-5 victory.

Russian head coach Valeri Bragin, whose been on the bench for three previous gold-medal games at the world junior tourney, admitted the third-period collapse against Sweden in the preliminary round was reason for concern.

"The game in the group stage, we have to win because it was 3-0 after two periods. Even when we were leading 3-2, we have to win that game," Bragin said through a translator. "I think we'll take a lesson from that game, but I think the Swedes -- like us -- have really a great motivation because they don't win the world juniors for something like 30 years.

"But before the finals, the chance is always 50-50. They have desire. We have desire. The game will show who is stronger. Right now, it's difficult to predict."

wes.gilbertson@sunmedia.ca

On Twitter: @SUNGilbertson


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