It was four years ago, plus a few days, that the Russian hockey coach Valeri Bragin said, “If you play against Canada, those game show what kind of players you (have).” He was right; his players would show something within a week or so. The rest of the hockey world measures itself in relation to Canada, and it should. We still create the best players. We’re still the standard.
And in the junior world championship final, Russia and Canada met again in the final for the first time since 2011, and it looked like a blowout, again. Canada was flying. They hadn’t trailed in the tournament. They were a machine. It was a celebration.
But this is Russia. The last time, in Buffalo, the Russians were down 3-0 after two periods in front of a deafening crowd that was so full of red and white that it could have been a blood test, and Russia scored five times in the third to win gold. Canada’s goaltending failed, and its players froze, clawing at the air as they fell.
“It’s well-known in Russia. Tomorrow will be the final and we will see whether they have such heart,” Russian coach Valeri Bragin said Sunday, through an interpreter.
We found out. Max Domi jabbed at Pavel Buchnevich before the puck was dropped, mirroring linemate Anthony Duclair’s sandpaper to begin the American game; as the game began Buchnevich knocked Domi to the ice, and away they went.
And before anybody could get comfortable, Duclair won two puck battles before getting a pass from Domi and killing it, first touch, top corner, a big-boy shot. It took 23 seconds. It took another two minutes and change for a flying Nick Paul to deflect a pretty rush pass from Brayden Point, the slender kid who got a chance because Robby Fabbri sprained his ankle. The Russians pulled goaltender Igor Shestyorkin, left to stand behind the bench looking like his girlfriend had left the country. Ilya Sorokin, who stopped 51 shots in a pre-tournament win over Canada, was in. Bragin was right: Russia needed to show what kind of players it had.
Midway through the period Anatoli Golyshev beat Madison Bowey to a puck, and it was Dmitri Yudin who hammered home a goal that pinged the iron. Yudin stared down the Canadian bench as he celebrated, and Russian defenceman Ziat Paigin skated by his bench for high-fives and kept going to pound the glass, where the Canadian fans were sitting, briefly silent. Defiance, is what that was. They weren’t afraid.
It seemed like a flare in the winter night, though. Five minutes into the second Russia made a mistake. As Russia tried to make a long line change, Josh Morrissey hit 17-year-old Connor McDavid through a long seam, and McDavid made beating Sorokin five-hole look easy. 3-1 Canada. Domi and then Sam Reinhart scored, and it was 5-1 Canada. They weren’t even halfway through the game. The celebration was on.
But Russia was not afraid. They got one back with 5:39 left in the second on a rebound, power play. They got another one 32 seconds later on a two-on-one that came out of the clear blue sky. Defenceman Sam Morin took a tripping penalty, and Russia scored with 2:23 left in the period. Zach Fucale was swimming. It was 5-4 going into the third, with Russia on the power play again, with Reinhart in the box. Defiance. Canada hadn’t faced the heavy winds, but here they were.
They killed the penalty, but Fucale wasn’t handling pucks clean, not quite, and the Canadian sticks looked a little shaky. Reinhart couldn’t end it. Lawson Crouse couldn’t end it. The Russians kept pushing forward, forward. The clock ticked.
And those Canadian kids scrambled, and scraped, and played the most desperate hockey of their young lives. Fucale stopped a bouncer with 3.9 to go. Oh, my.
And when the horn sounded it was still 5-4 for Canada, and it was gold for the first time since 2009. Canada had to earn it. That was fair.
This Canadian team looked like an echo of Sochi for most of this whole tournament, filled with skill and defensive discipline, but with more goals. For a time, they looked like that team that Russia conquered four years ago. But they never gave the lead away, for the seventh time in seven games. This wasn’t the 2005 team, no. It wasn’t quite Sochi.
But Bragin said you learned what kind of players you had when you played Canada. In this game, Canada learned what kind of players they had, too.
The morning of the gold medal game Morrissey and his roommate Madison Bowey woke up, and it was like it was Christmas. Morrissey said “Today’s the day that we’ve been working for, for a month now together, but really our whole lives for this moment.”
“We kind of talked about it, like holy smokes, think about all the world juniors you watched on TV, all the gold medal games, the Olympics, the amazing moments there’s been. For me, I thought about last year, and getting to the semifinals, and not being able to make it all the way. For us, it’s such an amazing opportunity. For me, it’s my last opportunity ever to be able to do something at this tournament, and we really want to end it off on a great note.”