Phil Kemp’s heroics have U.S. on brink of another gold at WJC

Russia's Nikolai Kovalenko, front left, and United States' Phil Kemp collide during third period semifinal IIHF world junior hockey championship action in Vancouver, on Friday January 4, 2019. (Darryl Dyck/CP)

VANCOUVER — There are plenty of days between the moment you get off the plane at YVR and when the alarm goes off on the morning of the gold medal game at the World Junior Championship.

Hour upon hour of preparation, visualization, consternation — pretty much every other kind “ation” a 19-year-old can think of, right?

“To be honest,” said American defenceman Phil Kemp, “it’s a lot of hanging out in the hotel watching a lot of Netflix. Saw that Bird Box, a great movie. Interesting.”

Kemp was one of the heroes of a 2-1 American victory over Russia in the early semi-final Friday, slotting the Yankees into an opportunity to claim their second gold in three years at the WJC. The Edmonton Oilers seventh-round draft pick hooked a puck off the American goal line a the very last second that would have tied the game at 2-2, the kind of play you’ll never forget.

“Almost put iff the post and in,” Kemp laughed afterwards. “Just instinct.”

Nor will goalie Cayden Primeau forget that play, or the Vitali Kravtsov blast that was blocked by a U.S. defenceman, with his goalie several feet away from the front of his goal.

“My heart sank,” he said of that moment he spotted that puck retrieved by Kemp. Hey — a guy has to be good to be lucky, right?

“It just shows the buy in we have,” said Primeau, whose father is former NHLer Keith. “They noticed that I was out of the net, and everyone was jumping in front and making sure it stayed out.”

Russia opened with a goal that was disallowed, a video review that could have gone ether way but favoured American fortunes. Then Oliver Wahlstrom one-timed home a beauty feed from Logan Cockerill to close out the first period with a 1-0 lead, before American Alex Chmelevski scored in the powerplay for a 2-0 lead.

That shouldn’t be enough against a Russian team that, from this seat in the press box, was the most entertaining team to come out of Group A. To the man they were highly skilled, swift of foot, and the majority stood 6-foot-1 or better.

But Team USA made two goals stand up, a recurring theme here in Vancouver this week.

“They’re big and they’re not afraid to get pucks to the net,” Primeau said. “They’re very skilled and they can get around your D. Once they attack the net, they’re a huge threat.”

Big, fast and good, the Russians traded the puck better than any other team here, playing only enough defence to get them to their next blazing rush up ice in search of a goal.

Whether it’s the towering Gregori Denisenko (Florida property), silky defencemen like Alexande Romanov (Montreal), Alexander Alexeyev (Washington) and Dmitri Samorukov (Edmonton), or slick forwards Vitali Kravtsov (Rangers), Pavel Shen (Boston) or Klim Kostin (St. Louis), there are names here we will come to sooner than later.

When we reference the elevated level of pure skill today’s 19-year-old has compared to those from even a decade ago, the visual is this Russian team. What a joy they’ve been to watch here.

Yet, they will play only for bronze, out-duelled by a well-coached, responsible American team with enough lethal strikers of their own to have scored their two goals on far less chances than the Russians enjoyed on Friday. Russia out-shot the U.S. 35-27.

“For sure it’s hard, it’s a big disappointment,” said handy Russian forward Kirill Slepets. “Our team is one of the best here. We were a little bit unlucky. Will fight for the medal tomorrow.”

Yes, but the Americans will fight for the medal of choice tomorrow, when the long road comes to an end.

“This our three-week marker, today,” said Cockerill, “since we got together as a team. You talk about it from the start, getting to the gold medal game. But there’s so much time in between showing up for pre-camp, and getting there. Now, it’s just about recovery and getting ready for the game (on Saturday).”

“We’ve gotten very close,” Kemp said of he and his American teammates. “We’re definitely playing for each other.”

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