Ivan Nalimov stands six-foot-four but he probably looked even bigger to Team WHL Wednesday night at the Enmax Centrium.
The Russian netminder turned aside 42 shots to lead his squad to a 3-2 win over the best of the Western Hockey League in a Subway Super Series contest viewed by 6,057 fans.
“One person was certainly a difference in the game. Their goalie played extremely well for them,” said Team WHL head coach Brent Sutter. “We had lots of chances and he made some big time saves. We certainly had an enormous amount of opportunities and I thought that our kids did a good job, practising just once and going out there trying to create some chemistry.
“Unfortunately we were one goal short tonight.”
Russian forward Alexei Baskov snapped a 2-2 tie with a wrap-around goal early in the third period and although the home team directed 18 shots at Nalimov in the final frame, the Russian stopper stood tall and Baskov’s marker stood up as the winner.
“On a couple of goals they got we had some soft plays around our net and we can’t let that happen,” said Sutter.
The Team WHL bench boss played Portland Winterhawks forwards Taylor Leier, Nicolas Petan and Brendan Leipsic together late in the contest in an effort to draw even.
“They’ve all played together as a group. During the last six or seven minutes I put the three of them on a line together. All three of them come from a team that creates a lot of offence,” explained Sutter.
The WHL squad appeared to net the tying goal with 1:30 remaining but it was waved off with the ruling being that the referee intended to blow the whistle before the puck entered the net.
“We did a lot of things well here tonight, we just came up one goal short and that’s what happens when you run into a real good goaltender,” said Sutter.
“Quite honestly he’s been very good in every game he’s played in this series.”
The win was the third in succession for Team Russia, which lost the first two games of the series in Quebec, then defeated Team OHL twice. The sixth and final game of the series is tonight in Lethbridge.
Despite holding a 14-7 advantage in shots during the opening period, Team WHL trailed 2-1 at the first intermission.
Edmonton Oil Kings defenceman Griffin Reinhart opened the scoring just 45 seconds into the contest, wiring a shot past Nalimov as the trailer on a three-on-two.
The Russians pulled even at 14:36 of the period as Igor Rudenkov’s shot from just inside the blueline dipped and beat Team WHL goaltender Eric Comrie of the Tri-City Americans under his arm.
Three minutes later, Alexander Barabanov cashed a rebound from a scramble and the Russians had a 2-1 lead that held up until Leier scored on a short-handed breakaway 2:43 into the second period.
Comrie made 10 saves in a solid second-period performance, none better than his stop on Ildar Shiksatharov, who broke in alone but couldn’t beat the goaltender’s left pad.
A few minutes later Comrie robbed Alexei Baskov with a glove stab.
“I’m sure he would have liked that first one back but other than that he made some big saves,” said Sutter. “There were two or three times in the second period when their guys got behind our defencemen and he came up big. After he settled in I thought he handled it really well.”
Comrie, who finished with 22 saves, was of the opinion that he could have posted a shutout on a better night.
“I feel I should have had all three of them (goals). It’s tough to lose a game like that but we’re going to come out and win tomorrow,” he said. “I thought our guys played real well in front of me. I thought they were outstanding.
“They were blocking shots, they were physical and they shot the puck a lot. The other goalie was very good, I have to give credit to him.”
Team WHL captain Curtis Lazar of the Oil Kings tipped his hat to the entire Russian squad.
“I have to give the Russians credit,” he said. “We came together as a team tonight and we played hard, but we didn’t get the result we wanted.”
Rebels forward Conner Bleackley was the lone 1996-born player on Team WHL and didn’t look out of place.
“It was fun to get out there and play with the best players in the league,” he said. “Obviously we would have liked to win, but I thought we played well enough to win and the atmosphere in the rink was nice.”
Bleackley managed to get onto the official scoresheet as he was assessed a pair of second-period tripping penalties. He also drew a penalty in the middle frame when he was submarined by Russian defenceman Pavel Koledov.
“I think I’ve taken probably taken three minors all year and I got penalized twice for tripping,” said Bleackley. “Those were really bad penalties and I’m glad the boys killed them off. We actually got a short-handed goal on one of them.”
The Rebels’ top scorer used the game as a measuring stick of sorts.
“It was good to see all the other guys . . . the top guys in the league and see where they’re at and kind of where I fit in,” he said. “I definitely have a long way to go, but it was good.
“The pace was a lot different than in a league game and the Russians play a lot different than any other team in our league. They sat back in the third period and played a trap. You never want to make neutral zone turnovers against them because their transition game is phenomenal.”