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Russia 4, Sweden 1: Rafikov now in reduced role, but has a chance at gold

The Flames' lone prospect at the 2015 World Juniors is now guaranteed a medal. Just two questions remain: what colour will it be, and what role will he play?

Claus Andersen

The last time Team Russia played Team Sweden, we were treated to what looked like a matchup for the top spot in Group B. It was a very close, hard fought game in which the Swedes just edged the Russians with a 3-2 victory. Flames prospect Rushan Rafikov had an impact on the game, as he took the Russians' first penalty that resulted in a goal from the deadly Swedish powerplay, but he also started the breakout and collected an assist on the Russians' tying goal.

Since then, Russia fell to third in their group, and had to play a quarterfinal matchup against the Americans. Rafikov, who spent the round robin playing on the Russians' top defence pairing alongside Dmitri Yudin, found himself demoted as the quarterfinal game went on. Yudin was paired with Ziat Paigin, and Rafikov's ice time went down.

This continued in the semifinal and rematch against the Swedes. Rafikov was officially split from Yudin, and now partnered with Alexander Bryntsev. While his even strength duties were drastically reduced following the final round robin game against the Czechs, in which he was burned on three out of four Czech goals, that didn't affect his position on special teams.

Rafikov is one of Russia's most offensive defencemen. He scored one goal and two assists during the round robin, and has been a constant feature on the powerplay. That continued this game, as he was out for the start of almost every Russian powerplay (the only one he did not start he was on the ice when the penalty was drawn). Despite not getting any points, Rafikov ultimately looked good with the man advantage. He manned the left point, keeping the puck onside and frequently being used as the initial setup man. Rafikov also had the chance to score several times, as he was often teed up for a shot he just was never able to get through.

The Flames prospect had two great chances to put points on the board with the man advantage. The first was a heavy shot into a lot of traffic that was ultimately blocked before it found Swedish goalie Linus Soderstrom, and the second was a hard set up that Ivan Barbashyov was just unable to put behind Soderstrom.

The Russians faced a formidable Swedish penalty kill that had yet to allow a goal all tournament. However, once Russia took the lead thanks to a great Alexander Sharov goal, what had once been an even game seemed to switch gears and become all Russia. This continued when Paigin put the Russians up 2-0, scoring that all important first powerplay goal with an absolute blast from the right point. This followed Rafikov's excellent powerplay shift that just failed to materialize into a goal.

Rafikov played a little bit of penalty kill as well, always towards the end of the kill. The Swedes failed to score with the man advantage, as the Russian kill finally stopped the formidable powerplay that played such a strong role in eliminating the Finns.

He had a few defensive plays at even strength as the game went on, most notably in the third period, including a successful diving block. With just a two-goal lead after the Swedes got on the board and were pressing furiously, he was out there briefly against William Nylander. Nylander swept around him wide, going around the Russian net and throwing the puck out front, but a bad bounce gave the Russians a two-on-one to restore their three-goal lead and effectively end the game.

Rafikov finished the game with no actual shots on net, and by nearly being responsible for a goal against. While he wasn't on the ice for Sweden's first goal, he played a role in causing Jacob de la Rose's goalie interference on Igor Shestyorkin. This resulted in Shestyorkin losing his stick and Rafikov stuck at the front of the net, where the shot easily went through him (because he is not a goalie and does not have the requisite padding to actually effectively stop pucks), but it was called off for goalie interference, and the Russians took the 4-1 win.

There's just one game left for the Russians to play: the gold medal matchup, where they'll face the winner of Canada vs. Slovakia. That game will be on Monday, Jan. 5 at 6 p.m. MT on TSN.

As the tournament has gone on, Rafikov's role has been reduced. He still wears an "A" for the team, but is no longer on the top defence pairing, and seems to now be mostly relegated to the powerplay - albeit on the first unit - as his defensive game has a lot of holes. Offensively, though, he has pretty good instincts. Hopefully when he makes his anticipated debut at Flames prospect camp this upcoming summer, he'll have rounded out his game more; in the mean time, at least the Flames' lone prospect at the 2015 World Juniors is guaranteed a medal.