The Russian team that won the World Junior (under -20) Championship in Buffalo on Wednesday night bore no resemblance to the Soviet machinists of old. The teams of Krutov, Larionov, Mararov and Tretiak were robotic, computer-like, a passionless, but lethal, paint-by-numbers display of science over art. But these were not your babushka's Russians.
Down 3-0 with less than 18 minutes to play in the third period on Wednesday night, the Russians forged their third straight improbable comeback in single-elimination play, scoring five times to stun Team Canada, 5-3. (Game recap)
"I was very proud of our players to come back not once, but three times," Russian coach Valeri Bragin said after the game.
Bragin's Russians had already come from two goals down with four minutes to play to beat Finland in overtime of the quarterfinals and one goal down with 93 seconds to play to topple Sweden in OT of the semis. What's more, they played with finesse and passion and weren't shy about celebrating after stunning the Canadians; dancing, prancing and proving that singing -- no translation needed -- was not their strong point.
Team Canada captain Ryan Ellis was predictably shellshocked after the game.
"Our fault," he said. "We had the game in our hands and let it get away...It's tough. You let your fans down. You let your country down, just when you thought you had it."
Canadian goalie Mark Visentin echoed Ellis. "It's a terrible pill to swallow," Visentin said. "It's tough watching them celebrate out there. We worked so hard for this...I don't believe we won the silver. We lost the gold. That's what we came here for."
Evgeni Kuznetsov and Vladimir Tarasenko are bona fide stars-in-waiting, which could make the Washington Capitals and St. Louis Blues, the teams that drafted these two stylish forwards, very happy in the near future.
The game marked the second straight world juniors final in which Canada chased the opposing goaltender and still lost. Last year, U.S. keeper Mike Lee was pulled in favor of Jack Campbell after giving up three goals on seven shots. Team USA won, 6-5, in overtime. This year, with the Russians trailing, 3-0, Bragin yanked Dmitri Shikin in favor of Igor Bobkov, the same goalie who got lit up for six goals in a loss to Canada during the preliminary round.
Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin texted his Russian countrymen before the game, saying, "Thanks for the win against Sweden [in the semifinals]. Get ready to work your butts off in the finals."
Ovechkin and his fellow Russians took it on the chin from the Canadians, 7-3, in the quarterfinals at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. The Canadian players received messages of support from Wayne Gretzky, Scott Niedermayer and 2010 hero Sidney Crosby, who told them, "This is your moment. Seize the day."
In a show of support for their extended family, Canada's players wrote the name Mandi on their sticks before the game. Mandi Schwartz, the sister of Team Canada forward Jaden Schwartz, is battling cancer. Jason got knocked out of the tournament on Tuesday, when he suffered a broken ankle during an awkward collision in the game against the Czech Republic. In obvious discomfort, Schwartz at first didn't realize the severity of his injury and actually returned to score a goal a few shifts later.
With his goal and assist on Wednesday, Canada's Brayden Schenn tied the mark of 18 points in one world junior championship tournament by a Canadian player. The record was set by Dale McCourt in 1977 at the very first tournament. Wayne Gretzky and Eric Lindros ranked next with 17 apiece. Even more amazing, Schenn played for much of the tournament with an injured shoulder.
Canada's Ryan Ellis also entered the record books in Buffalo. He now has 25 career points in three world junior tournaments, the most of any defenseman in the history of the event. Ellis also joined countrymen Jason Botterill, Jason Spezza and Jay Bouwmeester as the only players to win three world junior medals during their careers.
Tyson Barrie may be thought of as an offensive defenseman, but the astute Canadian backliner from Victoria was never on the ice for an even-strength goal-against until the final period of the tournament. In the first period against Russia, he made an outstanding do-or-die poke check from behind against Kuznetsov. The Russian fell over Barrie's stick and slid into the boards and might well have been awarded a penalty shot had Barrie's stick not tipped the puck away first. And no rest for the weary: Barrie's Western Hockey League team in Kelowna, B.C. plays tonight (Thursday).
Earlier in the day, the U.S. defeated Sweden, 4-1, to win the bronze medal, before some esteemed family members. Ray Bourque, the Hall-of-Fame NHL defenseman and Canadian Olympian, was in attendance, but not to cheer for his native land. His son, Ryan, a native of Boxford, Mass., was an alternate captain on Team USA. John Ramage, son of NHL veteran Rob Ramage, was captain. Bourque plays for the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and was a third-round pick of the Rangers in 2009. Ramage, who plays for the University of Wisconsin, was Calgary's fourth-round pick in 2010. Connecticut-born Tim Erixon played for Team Sweden, as had his father Jan, a former Ranger who was long recognized as one of the top defensive forwards in the NHL.
The proximity to the border made it so easy for Canadian fans to make the trip into Buffalo for the tournament that they outnumbered American partisans, by many accounts, four-to-one for the semifinals. The numbers were more telling for the final against Russia. One fan's clever sign read, "Welcome to Buffalo, Ontario, eh." In all, more than 330,000 fans attended the championships, more than any other hockey tournament, including the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, ever held on U.S. ice. It still fell short of the 450,000 who attended the 2009 World Juniors in Ottawa.
At times, Canadian broadcaster TSN cut away to a living room scene at 24 Sussex Drive, where Prime Minister Stephen Harper, dressed in the team's red and white road jersey, was leading the cheers from home with his similarly-dressed staff and family in front of a large-screen television.
The world juniors will move north next year, as Calgary and Edmonton are slated to host the tournament, with the finals to be held in Calgary. The lottery for tickets to "priority games," including quarters, semis and finals, was due to close on the day of the final in Buffalo. But because internet servers were overloaded with requests, the deadline was extended until noon on Thursday. Russia and Sweden will be the host nations for 2012-13 and 2013-14 respectively. The U.S. will next host the tournament in 2017-18, with the city or cities still to be determined.