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GOLD Add to ...

The face of Canadian hockey this morning tends to wear an angelic, almost choir-boy grin. There is a small tuft of beard on the chin and a hearing aid in the right ear. It belongs to superpest Steve Downie, a player who is one part Darcy Tucker, one part Theo Fleury and 100-per-cent pure Canadian hockey player.

The 5-foot-10 Downie drew the unenviable job of shadowing Russia's electric Evgeni Malkin for last night's final of the world junior hockey championship and received some words of encouragement from Wayne Gretzky just before the final game. Gretzky told Downie: Play hard, play with an edge and you'll do fine.

Gretzky, who among other things runs Canada's men's Olympic hockey team as its executive director, now adds another job description to his lengthy résumé: Soothsayer. Canada recorded a 5-0 win in the gold-medal game, in no small part because Downie was so effective against Malkin, a dynamic, wonderful talent that left GM Place frustrated by his inability to do anything against the persistent Canadian checking.

So Canada defended the title it captured in Grand Forks, N.D., last year and won on home ice for the first time since 1995, after losing the 2003 and 1999 finals in Halifax and Winnipeg, respectively.

There was a controversial moment early in the second period with Canada leading 2-0 when Russia appeared to break Justin Pogge's shutout attempt, with a shot that squeezed under his pad, just inside the goalpost.

Luckily for the Canadians, the puck pin-balled out of the net and was tucked safely under Pogge's pads by the time U.S. referee Brian Thul arrived on the scene.

Seconds after play resumed, TSN showed a replay clearly indicating that the puck was in the net. At the next whistle, Thul called upstairs to talk to the replay booth, but by then, it was too late to overrule the original call.

As a result, Canada maintained its two-goal lead and it stayed that way until Michael Blunden scored his first two goals of the tournament, both on second-period power plays, to put the game out of reach. On the second Blunden goal, Russian defenceman Alexei Emelin was sitting in the penalty box because he'd cross-checked Downie in the face.

Officially, Canada surrendered only six goals, a tournament record.

Malkin, the man Downie was asked to check, is a hockey prototype -- tall, strong, skilled, a magnetic presence on the ice. Downie is just the opposite. Small by NHL standards, Downie is a tenacious buzz saw, who plays the game in straight lines.

The plan was to wear the Russians down with big bodychecks and Downie led the charge from the opening minute. Downie actually took two minors in the first 8:52 of play, but Russia failed to capitalize on four chances with the man advantage.

By the time the third period rolled around, Malkin was clearly frustrated and took an undisciplined hooking penalty for no apparent reason.

When Downie wasn't working him over, the Canadians fed Malkin a steady diet of the Marc Staal-Ryan Parent defence pair and they did a fine job of defending against him.

Russian goaltender Anton Khudobin, who said he was looking for a "measure of revenge" against the Canadians after getting blown out in last year's game, turned in just a so-so performance and was widely outplayed by his counterpart Pogge. Khudobin looked in danger of losing his composure frequently in the third period, perhaps regretting his pregame assertion that his team would dominate the underdog Canadians.

For a short time, it looked as though Khudobin's prediction could come true. The Russians held a 15-4 edge in first-period shots on goal when Downie opened the scoring for Canada at the 17:13 mark.

On the play, Downie carried the puck out from behind the Russian net, as if he were looking to make a centring pass. The Russians bought the fake and stayed with their checks in front of the net. That gave Downie a chance to skate straight in front and he caught Khudobin sleeping, by finding a gap along the ice.

Ninety-three seconds later, with the Russians reeling, Blake Comeau took a soft pass from Staal and tipped the puck toward the Russian net. Khudobin stopped the shot, but directed the rebound right back onto Comeau's stick, where he jammed in the rebound.

The Russians held a territorial edge for much of the first period and were a little unlucky not to get on the scoreboard first. At the 15-minute mark, Alexander Radulov rattled a shot off the crossbar. Seconds before, Pogge made a spectacular glove save on a shot that was tipped just in front of his goal and changed directions dramatically.

Canada was in a bend-but-don't-break mode for most of the opening period, trying (and mostly succeeding) in maintaining that fine line between playing aggressive and overaggressive hockey.

In the end, they executed coach Brent Sutter's game plan perfectly, giving them their 12th -- and arguably one of their most heartening -- world junior titles.

 

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