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Russia's Kuznetsov is show-stopper ; His second goal, in OT, edges Finns and star goalie Ortio

It's rare when Russia doesn't contend for a medal on hockey's World Junior Championship stage.

The Russians failed to do that last year for just the sixth time since the tournament began in 1977 and it seemed like Finland goalie Joni Ortio would personally see to it that Russia would return home empty-handed once more.

Yevgeni Kuznetsov didn't let that happen.

First his courageous drive to the net late in the third period gave his side a glimmer of hope. Then he gave the Russians a chance to try their luck in overtime with a sensational rush that produced another goal. He then capped the wild comeback that will extend the Finns' non-medal streak to five years. Kuznetsov earned the right to do the Maxim Afinogenov celebratory belly flop across the HSBC Arena ice after his goal with 3:16 left in OT before an estimated 9,000 proved that Mother Russia is back -- and is once again in the part of the tournament where it belongs, the semifinals.

The Russians beat Finland, 4-3, and will face Sweden today (3:30 p.m., NHL Network) for the right to play in the gold-medal game against either Canada or the United States.

Kuznetsov recorded two goals and an assist in the final 10:25 to save Russia from going back-to-back years without earning a medal in this championship for the first time in its history.

And he did it by solving Ortio, who for more than 56 minutes was simply sensational in denying a Russian attack that had scored 16 goals in its previous two games -- preliminary round wins over Norway and the Czech Republic. That earned them a spot in the playoff round after tournament-opening losses to powerhouses Canada and Sweden.

Kuznetsov trimmed a 3-1 deficit with 3:41 left in regulation when he drove to the net from the right corner and took a hard, low shot that was stopped by Ortio. However, the Russian forward stuffed the rebound past the Calgary Flames prospect, who entered the game with the second-best goals-against average and save percentage of the tournament.

Kuznetsov then split the defense for a one-on-one chance that was denied by Ortio, but Maxim Kitsyn had his back to tie it with 1:38 left.

Kuznetsov ended the drama when he fired a wicked wrister from the right circle after Kitsyn won a battle for the puck with two Finns in the corner and made the pass out to the open Kuznetsov.

"Today was like a miracle. We were lucky," Kuznetsov said through a translator.

Lucky, yes, but rewarded for never giving up.

The Russians, who finished sixth last year, fired shot after shot at Ortio only to be denied countless times with only a perfect deflection and a goal off the crossbar by Yuri Urychev at 10:10 of the first period to show for their efforts.

Russia fell behind after goals by Teemu Pulkkinen, Julius Junttila and Joonas Donskoi gave the Finns' blue faithful thoughts of ending their medal drought at five years.

Kuznetsov spoiled that dream and gives Russia a chance to earn a record 29th medal. The Russians have medaled each of the previous five times following years they failed to medal.

It's a trend Kuznetsov is determined to keep intact.

"I trained hard from the summer on because one of the goals was to get a medal at juniors," he said. "I was tired of coming back [to Russia] without winning anything and everyone criticizing us. I just want to win a medal."

"It's hockey. You have to play every game to the final seconds," Russian coach Valeri Bragin said.

Dmitri Shikin made 34 saves in the win.

e-mail: mrodriguez@buffnews.com

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