As someone who has watched every single Team Russia game, my eye drawn to Rushan Rafikov literally every time he stepped on the ice, this was a weird game for me. It's not that my allegiances were in question - I'm Canadian, the choice was clear - but specifically watching a player on the opposing team, and consequently being sad when he did poorly and happy when he did well, was an experience.
Of course, as the game neared its end those "happy when he did well" moments turned into complete and utter panic, so maybe it wasn't that weird. Because all in all, Rafikov - the lone Calgary Flames prospect at these 2015 World Juniors - had a pretty good game.
Rafikov wore an "A" for Team Russia throughout the tournament, and spent the entire round robin on the top defence pairing. He scored one goal and two assists, took a number of silly penalties, and was more noticeable when getting burned defensively than performing well. As a result, he saw himself demoted when teams entered single elimination games.
That, however, was not the case when playing in the gold medal game. Rafikov was sent out for the opening faceoff of every single period he played in the tournament, and against Team Canada, that meant he faced Sam Reinhart's line. Multiple times. The second overall pick from the 2014 draft is a formidable player, and his instant chemistry with linemates Max Domi and Anthony Duclair made it all the more dangerous. And yet, Rafikov was frequently trusted to defend against Canada's top line.
So if you're a Flames fan cheering for Canada - as you dang well should be - things ultimately turned out well. Because while that line had three of five of Canada's goals, he was only on the ice for one of them: Duclair's first, which came a shocking 23 seconds into the game. He was one of several Russians collapsed around the net, close to goalie Igor Shestyorkin than the open side, but in fairness to Rafikov, he spent the entire tournament collapsing to the front of the net when defending.
Throughout the chaotic nine-goal-fest that was the game, Rafikov was only out there for one more goal: Ivan Barbashyov's powerplay goal that made it a 5-2 game, and kicked off the Russian comeback. He didn't have any impact on the goal, scored as a result of a mass scramble and Barbashov's frantic whacking at the puck while he was back at the point.
Speaking of powerplays, though. Throughout the entire tournament. Rafikov was on the Russian man advantage. The only times he wasn't was when the powerplay got cut short due to an offsetting penalty, or when he wasn't a part of the first unit and the Russians scored quickly. Just like every preceding game, Rafikov manned the Russian point, and he did not give up any odd-man rushes.
While Canada came close to scoring a few more times with Rafikov on the ice, his defensive game was noticeably improved. He had a much more physical showing, including cross-checking Duclair and obstructing his scoring chance in the first, a big hit on Nick Paul in the third, and out-battling Reinhart a number of times throughout.
Rafikov is an offensive defenceman, though, and where he really shined was in the third period. Team Russia, once down by four, entered the third suddenly down by just a goal. While the goal scoring was over, it was a frantic period, with Russia pushing forcefully and Canada defending in kind.
So who was one of the biggest offensive pushers in a one-goal period? It was Rafikov. Rafikov led all players with three shots on net in the third, and was especially desperate in the game's final five minutes. All of his pinches, which were frequent, were smart and opportunistic, and his shot was hard and dangerous. The three shots he had on net don't even count the massive block Madison Bowey got in the way of just when Rafikov was just getting started. And while speaking of his offensive prowess, Rafikov displayed a pretty good outlet pass from within his own end throughout the tournament, too.
So this is the ultimate takeaway we can take from Rafikov in the gold medal game: despite no points, he was great in the offensive defenceman role. He was one of Russia's leaders in the dying minutes of a one-goal championship game. When the going got really tough, Rafikov responded. You gotta love that.
As for Rafikov's overall tournament? Some ups and downs. You'd hope for him to have scored more, but he also made a number of plays that should have resulted in a goal had his teammates been a little more aware, or had the opposition's goalie been a little worse. His defensive game needs improvement, but he's responsible on the point on the powerplay. He has flashes of physicality, and moments of stupidity.
All in all, for the Flames' seventh rounder: it's clear he has a lot of room to grow, but if you're a very low draft pick playing in the World Juniors, that could be said for just about everyone. And he came away with a silver medal, anyway. We'll see him again when he comes overseas for his first Flames prospect camp in July.