“Heartbreaking,” Mark Scheifele said when it was over.
“The worst feeling in the world,” added Ty Rattie.
“Feels great! Awesome!” said Jake McCabe. “They didn’t know what hit them.”
You don’t need a program to know that Scheifele and Rattie are Canadian and McCabe is the American in this story.
In fact, every Canadian watching here in Ufa or back home in the dead of night didn’t really know what hit them: a 5-1 romp for the U.S.A. over Team Canada in the 2013 World Junior Hockey Championship.
The loss in the semi-final will now send Canada to the bronze medal game on Saturday; the Americans will now play in the gold-medal game that had been the Canadians’ stated goal since the team left its December training camp in Calgary.
The Canadians were soundly defeated in a game in which they rarely threatened – the lone Canadian goal coming after a whistle had clearly sounded. It was a game in which the Americans dominated in every imaginable aspect, from speed and skill to goaltending, and right from the opening face-off.
“We put them on their heels right off the bat,” said an ecstatic McCabe, the American captain. “We played exactly how we had to play.”
“They came out quick,” Rattie conceded. “We didn’t. We didn’t respond until the third – and that was too late.”
The Canadians seemed jet-lagged for the first two periods, rarely sparking any memory of the dominant team that had charged through the opening round-robin with a perfect 4-0 record.
Team Canada head coach Steve Spott seemed baffled as to how such a thing could happen in a game that every player knew they had to win if they wished to play for the gold medal.
“They simply outworked our hockey club,” Spott said of the victorious Americans. “Maybe we should have gone in there before the game and kicked up a little bit of a storm.
“It’s something we have to address.”
Whatever could go wrong did go wrong, it seemed. Malcolm Subban, the goaltender who had been in what he called his “zone” since the tournament opened, found himself in a parking zone at the end of the Canadian bench following the fourth American goal. He could hardly, however, be solely blamed for Canada’s sorry effort this day.
“Nothing to do with Malcolm,” insisted Spott. “We left him out to dry.”
Backup goaltender Jordan Binnington finished out the game for Canada, but by this point it could already have been declared over – the USA domination was that profound.
Despite their earlier 2-1 loss to Canada, the Americans arrived at Ufa Arena early Thursday afternoon brimming with confidence. They had scored seven unanswered goals Wednesday against a surprisingly weak Czech Republic team, meaning over five games the Americans had outscored their opponents 26-7 by the time the puck dropped against Canada.
The outing against the Czechs had raised the assurance of the American players rather than tired them for the semi-final. The Canadians, on the other hand, were expected to be well-rested for the key game – and instead might have used the extra game to remain sharp.
Such discussions will be rendered moot next year, as there will be no more “byes” into the semis for the top teams in each group. All teams in 2014 will play quarter-final games.
The Canadians, having not won the gold medal since Ottawa in 2009, had arrived at the rink bearing high expectations for themselves and from their hockey-mad, and hockey-deprived, country. The difference between American pressure and Canadian pressure in this instance would be roughly comparable to the difference between a child’s school pack and a gorilla on your back.
It all raises questions: is such pressure causing the drought – or is the drought causing the pressure? No matter, the “gold or nothing” mantra looks like a fool’s chant in an era when the last four gold medals have gone to Canada, United States, Russia and Sweden.
“It’s not our divine right to win gold,” Spott said in an effort to credit the Americans. “This is a global sport now.
“When you get down to one game, anything can happen in junior hockey.”
And perhaps that explains it best, as the unimaginable seemed to happen. USA went ahead 1-0 at the 7:18 mark when McCabe, a defenceman, fired a puck through traffic that beat Subban. At the 14:02 mark, McCabe scored again on an eerily similar shot.
John Gaudreau, a Calgary Flames prospect, continued his torrid scoring by firing a hard wrist shot past Subban early in the second period, while Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Tyler Biggs cut in front of Subban.
“A great screen,” said Gaudreau.
The best Canadian chance came when Ryan Strome found himself all alone with the puck in front of the American net, but goaltender John Gibson easily blocked the shot. Gibson – who, coincidentally, is Canadian head coach Steve Spott’s goaltender when both are with the Kitchener Rangers – was strong all game, though it would never be described as his toughest test.
The Americans went ahead 4-0 when Jim Vesey picked the far corner on Subban and Gaudreau scored his second – and seventh in three games – late in the third when he was sent in all alone on Binnington.
It did not pass notice that all five goals were scored by U.S. college players, McCabe studying at Wisconsin, Gaudreau at Boston College and Vesey at Harvard. Team Canada is made up entirely of major junior players.
Canada’s long goal came off a bizarre sequence. Rattie got a clear chance in front that Gibson blocked, the puck sailing high and away. A whistle blew, causing several American players to turn away while Rattie swung again at the puck and the puck found the back of the net, with Gibson far out of position.
“We all thought it was a whistle,” Gibson said with more than a hint of sarcasm. “But apparently not.”
After review, officials decided, that the goal would stand.
Canada’s next goal should be clear: a bronze medal.
And no more of this ridiculous “gold or nothing.”
“We still have an opportunity to get a medal,” said Spott. “It’s not the colour we want, but it’s something we owe to the Canadian people."