It’s Canada vs. Russia for gold on Monday night. Connor McDavid, Nic Petan and company made sure of that.
McDavid’s otherworldly passes — all to Petan for his hat trick — led Canada to a hard-fought 5-1 win Sunday over Slovakia to advance to Monday’s gold medal game that had officials smiling.
“The best for business, Russia-Canada. Hockey classic,” said Russian coach Valeri Bragin, moments after Russia eliminated Sweden. Canada is 10-0-1 all time vs. Slovakia in world junior play.
As close as it got — or at least as close as it felt — there was no way Canada was going to lose to Slovakia. Not in the semifinals of the world junior hockey tournament. Not at the Air Canada Centre. Not with Russia awaiting the winner for gold.
And not with McDavid carrying the weight of a country and the hopes of a hockey nation on his back in what is his time to shine.
Petan, of course, had a lot to do with the win, finishing McDavid passes for Canada’s first two goals and Canada’s fifth. McDavid’s best pass was to Petan in the second period, with Canada holding a 1-0 lead and the natives getting restless.
As the second period wore on, it was as if the fans in the ACC wanted to get on board, and get loud, all on their own. As they chanted “Let’s Go Canada,” McDavid skated up the ice, a Slovakian all over him. Somehow, he kept control of the puck, drawing more defenders and feeding Petan for his second of the game at 18:06.
That set up a crazy final two minutes of the second, when Theodore — a defenceman — scored on a breakaway after a feed from Duclair at 19:32. That had the crowd in a frenzy, but it went quiet quickly because, as the goal was being announced, David Soltes finished off a 2-on-1 with 3.4 seconds remaining on the clock to put Slovakia on the board.
A singular rush by the never-give-up Duclair gave Canada a 4-1 lead early in the third, creating some breathing room to give the Air Canada Centre a reason to celebrate instead of worry.
McDavid, again being mugged beside the Slovakia net, managed to feed Petan again for Canada’s fifth goal.
Not to be overlooked was Canada’s Zach Fucale, who has emerged as the tournament’s top netminder. He made some huge saves as the Slovaks backed up their promise to play the game of their lives and came at Canada hard.
Fucale now has the net-rushing Russians to deal with in the gold medal game.
Canada walked into the Air Canada Centre showing solidarity with Robby Fabbri, the winger from the Guelph Storm whose tournament ended with a high ankle sprain in the first period of Friday’s quarter-final win over Denmark.
Fabbri, his right leg in a cast, led the team off the bus, down the corridor and into the room, calling himself the team’s “biggest cheerleader.”
“It’s very disappointing for him, obviously,” coach Benoit Groulx said of Fabbri, who was having an excellent tournament with two goals and four assists. “Such a nice person, and he’s a great competitor.
“When you look at Robby Fabbri, when you look at the player itself, he’s a very good hockey player. But what separates him from other players is how competitive he is and how much he wants to make the difference out there. He wants to be the guy.”
The Slovakians believed themselves to be a better team than the one that lost 8-0 to Canada on Boxing Day to open the tournament. They came into Sunday’s game with a 3-1 record since that loss to Canada, including wins over the Finns, the Germans and Czechs, the latter in the quarter-finals.
“I think myself and all the team, it’s the game of our lives and (we’ll) leave everything on the ice,” said Slovak goalie Denis Godla. “Play simple and not make mistakes.”
Canada insisted they weren’t going to take the Slovaks lightly.
“We all know that it’s going to be a different (than the Boxing Day game),” said Groulx. “They’re a very structured team, a team that competes and works hard with a very solid goalie.”
The first period was very different, but with one big similarity: Canada scored the first goal at roughly the same time.
On Sunday, it was Petan with a snapshot at 4:27 of the first, on the power play. Canada scored about 30 seconds later in the Boxing Day game. But Canada also scored three more times in the first period then, while Godla shut Canada down on Sunday.
In fact, it was Fucale who might have had faced better scoring chances, stopping Pavol Skalicky with his right pad to keep the score 1-0 for Canada late in the period.
The shots for the first were even, six apiece, with each team taking two minor penalties.