Revenge, they say, is a dish best served cold – and if that is truly the case, then Canada will get a chance to exact its revenge on Russia in 12 months time, when the Russians take a rare turn at playing host for the 2013 world junior championship in Ufa, where temperatures can really drop in January.
Unhappily, Canada was seeking its pound of flesh far sooner – this year, right now – and, oh boy, what a night and what a way to come up just a fraction short. After losing the gold-medal game to Russia last year with an epic third-period collapse, and falling behind 6-1 Tuesday night, the Canadians almost came up with their own epic comeback, before ultimately falling 6-5 to the Russians in a heartbreaker of a semi-final at the Scotiabank Saddledome.
For anyone wondering what makes the world junior tournament so compelling, this game was exhibits A to Z. It had everything and proved once again that tournament play is just different than league play – or traditional North American playoff action.
Every game after the round robin is a seventh game, a win-or-go-home scenario that can fuel such an extraordinary adrenalin rush that everything seems possible. With everything on the line, and the pressure cranked up to levels that they’ve never experienced before, the Canadian players played with a passion that they left nothing on the table, even when the game looked out of hand.
From 6-1 down, they received goals from Brendan Gallagher, Jaden Schwartz, Dougie Hamilton and Brandon Gormley, driving Russia’s starting goalie, 17-year-old sensation Andrei Vasilevski, from the nets. Andrei Makarov came in and, although the Canadians had numerous chances to get the tying goal past him, they couldn’t conjure up one final miracle. In all, Canada fired 56 shots, compared to just 24 for Russia.
It was Canada’s first official tournament appearance in Calgary, after winning its other four games in the tournament in Edmonton, and for the first 49 minutes it was not a performance for the ages. The goaltending, from both starter Scott Wedgewood and relief man Mark Visentin, was just so-so. Defensively, the Canadians broke down early and often, and ultimately, had no early answer for Russia’s dynamic Evgeny Kuznetsov, who had a hat trick by the game’s midpoint and finished with four points.
In the end, Canada’s loss means Russia and Sweden will play for the gold medal Thursday in a rematch of what was the best game in the round robin – a 4-3 thriller, won by Sweden in overtime last Saturday night. The Canadians, anticlimactically, will face Finland, a team they drubbed 8-1 earlier in the tournament, for the unwelcome bronze.
In each of the past 10 years, Canada has played in the gold-medal game, a remarkable stretch of consistency that came to an end against a Russian team whose trademark in recent years had been its fabulous finishes. On this night, however, it was all about its start. Playing for the second time in 24 hours, the Russians should theoretically have had fatigue in their legs, especially in a game played at a frantic pace.
Instead, they took advantage of an early Canadian defensive miscue – a turnover in the offensive zone by Ryan Murray – to convert on a 3-on-1, Kuznetsov stealing the puck in the first place, dishing to Yakupov, and then scoring on a one-timer on the return pass. From there, after a handful of near misses by Canada’s nervous-looking forwards, Russia made the score 2-0 on a power play, a long screened slap shot from the point by defenceman Nikita Nesterov that eluded Wedgewood.
Brett Connolly momentarily restored Canadian hope by scoring on a delayed penalty early in the second, but Kuznetsov responded with back-to-back goals to make the score 4-1. Wedgewood came out after getting creamed in the crease by Alexander Khokhlachev as the fourth goal went in. He gave up four goals on 13 shots. Khokhlachev added salt to the wound by scoring on the second shot against Visentin.
The loss was particularly discouraging for a quartet of players who had to suffer through the finale last year – Quinton Howden, Connolly, Schwartz (who was injured) and Visentin. Visentin didn’t get the start against the Russians, for a variety of reasons, mostly to do with history, and frankly Wedgewood just looked more sure of himself between the pipes in the four preliminary games, where each netminder played twice. It would be unfair to second-guess coach Don Hay for his goaltending choice; internally and externally, the consensus was that Wedgewood was holding the hotter hand and that’s how you pick your goaltenders in these events.
Goaltending has not been Canada’s strong suit at this event for a number of years now, although Vasilevski’s confidence looked shattered at the end, too.
For anyone that turned off their TV sets at 6-1, they missed a fabulous finish and another ratings bonanza for the rights holder, TSN, and is sure to create even more interest in the 2013 event, in which the Canadians will need to travel halfway around the world and play on the larger, international ice surfaces.
For once, they’ll be able to play the underdog card in Russia. That was everybody else’s trump card this time around and may be Canada’s ace in the hole 12 months from now as they seek both redemption ... and revenge.
In a game where the momentum shifted wildly at times, an early turning point came with the shots 26-11 for Canada early in the second period. A rising wrist shot by Russia’s Evgeni Kuznetsov handcuffed Canadian goaltender Scott Wedgewood and restored their two-goal second-period lead, just as Canada was making its first push back.
THE TURNING POINT
Canada had a 74-second two-man advantage late in the opening period down by two, but couldn’t generate a decent chance - and then lost the opportunity altogether when Dougie Hamilton took a high-sticking minor.
Canada saved the best for last when, trailing 6-1, they rattled off four consecutive goals in the third period, got it to 6-5 and drove starter Andrei Vasilevski from the net. There were multiple close calls in the final seconds, but not escaped the relief man, Andrei Makarov.