TORONTO — For the first time since Team North America came together, coach Todd McLellan had to re-instill some belief.
With players slumping at their lockers after allowing Russia to score four goals in under seven minutes, McLellan told them they were better than they thought they were at that moment. Young North America was the better team Monday night, but a lopsided stretch was enough to give Russia a much-needed 4-3 victory in a fast-paced, end-to-end showcase of the sport at the World Cup of Hockey.
Vladislav Namestnikov, Nikita Kucherov, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Vladimir Tarasenko scored on consecutive shots during a 6:14 stretch, and Sergei Bobrovsky made 42 saves on 45 shots to hand the 23-and-under mix of American and Canadian players its first loss of the tournament.
"We just lost our way for 10 minutes," McLellan said. "I thought we were hesitant. … They were quicker, they were stronger. They stripped us a number of times. We looked slow, and that’s not the way we play. Slow reading, slow reacting and slow to the scoreboard."
Toronto Maple Leafs 2016 No. 1 pick Auston Matthews scored on a 2-on-1 rush off a pass from Edmonton Oilers 2015 No. 1 pick Connor McDavid, and Morgan Rielly and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins had goals for North America (1-1), which outshot Russia 45-23.
Russia’s goals in quick succession were "team goals," McLellan said, but they also led to the end of goaltender Matt Murray’s night. Murray, who stopped the first 15 shots he faced before Russia broke through, jammed his thumb in the second period, but McLellan said he was healthy enough to play.
Murray was on the wrong end of a young team’s young mistakes. The efficiency of speed and skill that worked in a win over Finland on Sunday stopped for a short period of time against high-powered Russia, and it proved disastrous.
"We got away from our game, trying to be too cute and getting pucks instead of going to the net going east to west too much," Matthews said. "They’re a team that likes to turn the puck over and get going the other way. That’s something we’ve got to clean up."
On their heels early, the Russians responded well after opening the World Cup with a loss to Sweden. Their penalty kill went 6 for 7, led by Bobrovsky, who also stopped McDavid on a second-period breakaway.
"Obviously, we knew we can’t lose the game," captain Alex Ovechkin said. "If we lose the game we’re obviously out of the tournament. Back to back, I think we played a solid second and our penalty-kill guys, (Ivan) Telegin, blocked the shots, Bobrovsky. You can see everybody sacrificing, and we get the result."
It wasn’t the result North America wanted, but a furious third-period comeback showed that it didn’t lose confidence. McDavid blamed himself and his teammates for failing to capitalize on an extended 5-on-3 power play.
"We definitely let the team down there," McDavid said.
North America still had another opportunity with a 6-on-4 in the final minute. Shayne Gostisbehere hit the post behind Bobrovsky with 14 seconds left, and Russia held on.
"That’s not the way to play the Russians, but I thought we did a good job of responding and really making a game of it," McDavid said. "I think that’s a good sign, but in a short tournament like this, we needed the points."
North America was without top defenseman Aaron Ekblad, who McLellan called day to day with an upper-body injury. Jacob Trouba replaced him, but Ekblad’s absence created a void of extra minutes that defensemen had to fill.
Many made costly mistakes, and Russia was more than willing and able to take advantage of turnovers and defensive mix-ups.
"I think some hockey god got on our side, and we just got good luck," said Kuznetsov, who made a "FIFA" inspired wing-flapping celebration after his goal.
For all of Russia’s energy during its stretch, losing like that taught North America a lesson about regaining composure and the value of playing a complete 60 minutes.
"Unfortunately, when it goes into the record books, all 60 count," McLellan said.
North America wraps up round-robin play Wednesday against Sweden, while Russia faces Finland on Thursday.
Notes: John Gibson faced only four shots in relief of Murray and stopped them all. … Namestnikov scored in his World Cup debut, replacing Vadim Shipachev.