How times have changed.
They played the Star Spangled Banner Saturday evening in Russia and more than 7,000 people, mostly Russian, stood out of respect following Team USA’s 3-1 defeat of defending champion Sweden in the final game of the 2013 World Junior Hockey Championship.
Times have also changed in hockey, with perennial favourite Canada stumbling in its final two games to lose to first the Americans and then the Russians – 6-5 in overtime earlier Saturday – to finish fourth and out of the medals.
The Russians, an early tournament favourite like Canada, somewhat mollified home country fans by taking the bronze medal. Sweden won silver.
Never was the difference between gold and bronze so profound. While Canada and Russia played for bronze in a match that more resembled a wild pond-hockey game, Sweden and USA played a match of surgical precision.
Both teams played with control rather than the abandon of the Canadians and Russians; both played safe when risk was possible, rather than plunge right in, as Canada and Russian had done. The gold-medal game featured smart passing, responsible checking and, consequently, little scoring opportunity.
The only statistic of consequence emerging from the opening period was the two posts hit by tiny Rocco Grimaldi – both from the same shot as the puck pinged off both posts behind Swedish goaltender Niklas Lundstrom and bounced out of harm’s way.
As irony would have it, the goals that did come in this precisely-played match were all but one of the somewhat-surprising variety, far from the tic-tac-toe passing plays that could be expected from such a game.
A lucky bounce put Sweden ahead early in the second period when a dancing puck wiggled through the legs of U.S. defenceman Seth Jones – a possible No. 1 pick in the next NHL draft – and ended up on the blade of Swedish forward Filip Sandberg. Sandberg’s quick wrist shot beat American goaltender John Gibson high to the glove side.
Tiny Grimaldi – think of a water bug on ice – twisted out from behind the Swedish net and fired a low shot through a defender’s skates that somehow squeaked in the short side on Lundstrom.
Shortly after, a point shot from big U.S. defenceman Jacob Trouba bounced off Grimaldi and the Americans were ahead 2-1. The Swedes maintained that Grimaldi had used his hands but the officials decided the goal would stand.
The Swedes pressed during an exuberant third period but could not penetrate the stingy American defence.
With 16 seconds remaining, the U.S. took full command when Vince Trocheck broke down the ice and put the puck in the empty Swedish net.
Appropriately, two U.S. defenders, captain Jake McCabe and Trouba were named to the All-Star team, along with U.S. forward John Gaudreau, Canadian captain Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Swedish forward Filip Forsberg. Gibson was named top goaltender.
In the “Best Player” category, Gibson won again for goaltender, Trouba for defence and Nugent-Hopkins as top forward.
It was nice for Nugent-Hopkins, but a far cry from the award Canada went to this tournament hoping to bring home.