A forgettable IIHF World Hockey Championship for Canada ended with a crushing 5-2 quarter-final loss to Russia on Thursday.
It's the third straight year Russia ended Canada's gold-medal hopes at the tournament and this loss came a long way from the final. A young Canadian squad dropped four of its final five games and failed to get past the quarter-finals for the first time since 2002.
"You want to win and it's disappointing when you don't," said forward Steven Stamkos. "It's a bitter taste."
The Canadians entered as heavy underdogs to a powerhouse Russian team that featured 14 of the players who competed at the Vancouver Olympics. Corey Perry was the lone gold-medal winner from those Games to make the trip here for Canada.
Evgeni Malkin, with two, Maxim Afinogenov, Pavel Datsyuk and Sergei Fedorov - all Olympians - scored goals for Russia (7-0), which extended its world championship winning streak to 26 games.
John Tavares and Matt Duchene replied for Canada (3-4).
Despite the gap in skill and experience, the hard-fought game wasn't as lopsided as the score suggested.
"I don't think it was an easy game for anybody," said Fedorov.
Mark Messier's team struggled to generate offence in its biggest games. Canada scored just five times in its four losses, putting a lot of pressure on top goaltender Chris Mason in the process.
However, Mason also played a part in the team's struggles by allowing some soft untimely goals.
That could be seen against Russia when Afinogenov opened the scoring with 57.6 seconds to play in the first period with a shot that dribbled through Mason's arm and across the goal-line. Until that point, Canada had done an excellent job weathering the storm in a charged atmosphere at Lanxess Arena.
The team temporarily lost its composure after going down 1-0 and Stamkos took a boarding penalty as the buzzer sounded for the first intermission.
Datsyuk made Canada pay with a goal on the ensuing power play, lifting a shot over Mason from a tight angle at 1:45 of the second period.
The Canadians were getting their chances at the other end but simply couldn't get a puck behind Semyon Varlamov. The Russian goaltender extended his glove to stop Stamkos before getting in front of Steve Downie's shot at the end of a 3-on-1 rush for Canada.
"I thought the difference in the game was that the Russian players were able to capitalize on a high percentage of their chances and us on a very low percentage of our chances," said Canadian coach Craig MacTavish.
Malkin made it 3-0 on another Russian power play. The sniper took a pass in the slot and beat Mason through the legs at 17:31.
A physical game started to turn chippy and the second period ended with a scrum that saw players exchanging punches. When the same thing happened in the final 20 minutes, the referees started assessing 10-minute misconducts to offenders.
Fedorov put Russia ahead 4-0 at 7:31 of the third period before Tavares ended Varlamov's shutout bid at 13:52, scoring his team-best seventh goal of the tournament with a wicked shot off the rush. Malkin scored into an empty net before Duchene struck late.
Tavares and Duchene are among the young players that Hockey Canada invited to this tournament in hopes that they'll benefit from the experience four years from now during the Sochi Olympics. Only time will tell if the strategy pays off.
"We all saw first-hand how important these world championships are to everybody," said MacTavish.
"Normally Canada has a pretty decided advantage in terms of competitiveness, but in this tournament this year all the teams we played were highly competitive.
"They battled hard."
For the powerful Russians, Thursday's win offered a little bit of revenge for the 7-3 quarter-final loss they absorbed from Canada in Vancouver. However, as Russian captain Ilya Kovalchuk pointed out before the game, the memory of that defeat will linger until the 2014 Olympics.
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