Oh, the irony, the irony….
After days of back and forth about whether or not the Russian captain had slagged Canadian hockey players as “dirty” – a dirty, dirty Russian play trips the bear all the way to a 4-1defeat.
With the victory, Team Canada now has a bye into the semi-finals, assuring that Canada will, as expected by the players and demanded by the people, be playing for a medal before the 2013 World Junior Hockey Championship closes out on Jan. 5.
The medal they want, of course, is gold – something that has remained beyond Canada’s junior reach since Ottawa 2009.
Accusations and denials, claims of “misquote” and “out of context” had been in the air all week following the supposed jab by Russian star Nail Yakupov that Canadian hockey players were “dirty.” Such a shocking and totally ridiculous observation was not expected to go unanswered in the game.
And yet, not only could the Canadians have been wearing choir cassocks instead of hockey jerseys, the singular “dirty” play of the night – morning back in Canada – came early in the first period when young Valeri Nichushkin rammed Canadian defenceman Tyler Wotherspoon hard into the boards from behind.
With Canada on a five-minute power play, they were able to score twice, first on a hard shot from the point by defenceman Dougie Hamilton that beat Russian goaltender Andrei Makarov, then on a goalmouth scramble that saw forward Mark Scheifele score his fourth of the tournament on a rebound.
The Russians never recovered.
But for the play of Makarov during the long penalty the Canadian lead might have been even greater.
Once the Russians returned to full power, they gradually returned to competitive play, finally beating Canadian goaltender Malcolm Subban when Nikita Kucherov scored on a hard wrist shot from the slot.
Canada went ahead 3-1 in the second period when 17-year-old Jonathan Drouin scored on a wraparound that seemed to catch Makarov asleep. Canadian captain Ryan Nugent-Hopkins had seen Drouin slip in back of the goal and fed him a perfect pass that Drouin was able to curl back in front, clipping the puck in the short side while Makarov lunged helplessly to cover.
The goal was a nice checkmark for some surprising line-up fiddling conducted by Canadian head coach Steve Spott earlier in the day when he decided to move the gifted youngster up to the top line and play him with Nugent-Hopkins and Scheifele.
“So skilled, so smart,” Scheifele said of his new linemate when he heard of the lineup change, “his hands are incredible. He’s way ahead of his time.”
Spott said he was hoping to “create a different look” – coach’s language for “hope for some scoring punch.” Recent editions of Team Canada have not been particularly proficient in scoring necessary goals since Jordan Eberle’s heroics in Ottawa.
“A little more five-on-five offence,” explained Spott. “We’ll see how it works out.”
It worked out magnificently, as did some of his other fiddling. The insertion of Boone Jenner into the lineup – Jenner had been sitting out a suspension for a hit during a pre-tournament warmup game in Finland – proved fortuitous, as the hard-checking Jenner drove the Russians dizzy in their own end.
Canada might have moved ahead 4-1 in the middle period when, shorthanded, Mark McNeill rushed up the ice and fired a hard shot off the crossbar back of Makarov. The fourth goal finally came in the dying moments, when Jonathan Huberdeau, who had been replaced on the top line by Drouin, scored into the empty Russian net.
The Russians were given a penalty shot after that, but Vladimir Tkachyov failed to get his shot on net.
Russia now plays Switzerland in cross-over. The bye in the other group went to Sweden, defending champion following their dramatic gold-medal overtime win in Calgary a year ago.
While the game decided no medals, it was exciting and well played, a dramatic contrast to the dreary, sloppy earlier game at Ufa Arena in which U.S.A. defeated Slovakia 9-3.
It also marked the first time in years – including the 2011 tournament in Buffalo – that Team Canada has not enjoyed the home crowd advantage.
Canada and Russia could also meet again in the final, as three years ago in Saskatoon Canada won a dramatic New Year’s Eve match against the Americans only to meet again for the gold medal and lose an equally dramatic game.
“Whenever Canada plays Russia it is always a battle,” Russian goaltending coach Vladimir Myshkin had said before the game.
“But even more so when in Russia, on New Year’s Eve – it’s going to be hit.”
And it most assuredly was.
One “dirty” hit – followed by a massive hit for Canadian hockey fans.