Cole: Canadian juniors unable to dig out of early hole
CALGARY — First they self-destructed. Then, they almost put the pieces back together.
But there is no consolation in it for Team Canada's teenagers.
From down by five goals to Russia in the third period of the semifinal at the IIHF world junior championship, to one goalpost shy of a miracle comeback in the final minute. Their consolation — a shot at the bronze medal Thursday afternoon against Finland — won't put much of a smile on their faces, even if they can find the gumption to give it their best shot.
Tuesday night's 6-5 loss to their bitter historical rivals leaves Canada out of the gold medal game for the first time in 11 years, and the spoils will now go to the winner between Russia, going for back-to-back titles, and Sweden.
"It's not what we came for," said Brett Connolly, whose goal early in the second period gave the illusion of a modest bounce by the Canadians, who'd given up two first period goals.
The illusion didn't last.
The Russians reeled off three goals of their own in answer, two of them completing a hat trick for captain Yevgeni Kuznetsov, and added another in the third to go ahead 6-1.
And though something magical almost happened in the final 15 minutes, the Canadian kids themselves must have been the only ones in the building who really believed they could dig themselves all the way out.
"It's a tough feeling. Obviously going through it last year (when the Russians scored five unanswered on Mark Visentin to win gold), we wanted to do the same thing. We battled right to the end, and had a good third period, but we've got to get ready at the start," said Connolly. "We can't give up five goals (on the first 15 shots) and expect to win.
"We just made costly mistakes that turn around and bite us. I'm proud of the way we battled back. We didn't quit. But it sucks."
Five goals on their first 15 shots.
Either the Russian juniors are the world's most deadly snipers, or all the thousands of words that were spent trying to guess at the identity of Canada's No. 1 goaltender for 10 days turned out to be a giant waste of time.
The Canadians were, for two periods, utterly outclassed. In goal, yes, but at every other position, too.
Team Canada's backstops — first Scott Wedgewood, then Visentin after Wedgewood had been steamrolled in a collision following Kuznetsov's third goal — were only the last line of defence in a total team meltdown.
They have no one else to blame for it. Not even, said Canadian head coach Don Hay, the perception that they had too soft a route to the semifinal.
"No, I don't think so," he said. "Maybe we were a little nervous to start with, but we didn't do things we normally do, driving pucks down the wall and getting pucks and traffic to the net. Once we started doing that, we had more success. But it was just too big a hole."
It wasn't only that Hay's team came out nervy, or that the Canadians were outskated, outsmarted, out-acted, and even outhit. What really rankles is that they made every one of the Russians' pre-game observations come true.
They weren't as battle-hardened, after a cakewalk in Pool B, as the Russians, who had overtime tests against Sweden and then, in the quarter-final, the Czech Republic.
The Russians were, as their stars Kuznetsov and Nail Yakupov had matter-of-factly stated following the Czech game, the better team. Faster, more clever, more skilled.
"He is our captain," said coach Valeri Bragin, of Kuznetsov, the Washington Capitals' next great Russian. "This is how he should play in games like this. He is our most experienced player, he's playing professional league already, I am happy with the way he played."
The usual Canadian plan, in these situations, is to come out of the gate pounding the body — think Steve Downie, wallpapering the first Russian he saw in 2006 — but Tuesday, the visitors weren't co-operating by putting themselves in position to be hit. By the time the Canadians arrived, they were elsewhere.
Further complicating matters was the Russians' ability to con the referees, American Ian Croft and Finn Jyri Petteri Ronn, into calling a series of penalties, especially in the first period, few of which seemed to bear much relation to actual events on the ice.
But coping with diving and soccer-like histrionics — we lost count of how many Russians lay on the ice, then staggered to the bench, bent over, covering their faces — is a part of playing the European teams, and Canadians are supposed to know better than to play into their game.
In the second period, in addition to everything else, they lost their discipline and took penalties they did deserve.
"It's a rivalry, it's Canada-Russia," Connolly said. "They don't like us, we don't like them. You could see that at the end, they were right up in our face. It's hard to swallow."
Even the between-periods introduction of several dozen members of Teams Canada over the past three decades didn't go off without a hitch, when the host in the audience buttonholed Pat Quinn for an interview and introduced him as Pat Burns, who died last year.
For the Russians, though, the night was extra sweet. They had boasted, and backed it up. Kuznetsov's hat trick, and singles by Nikita Nesterov, Alexander Khokhlachev and Nikita Kucherov — the last two on Visentin — were just enough to hold off Canada's improbable third-period blitz of goals by Dougie Hamilton, Jaden Schwartz, Brendan Gallagher and Brandon Gormley.
Gormley's goal, to make it 6-5, chased Andrei Vasilevski and Russian coach Valeri Bragin replaced him with backup Andrei Makarov, who kept the door shut, barely. In the frenetic final minute, Ryan Strome rang a shot off the right post and Connolly just failed to swipe the rebound home.
"I think everybody's taking the loss hard. We wanted to have the opportunity to move on, and that's no longer there," said Hay, whose job now will be to get his players back up somehow to play for the bronze.
"Every game you play is worth playing for," he said. "It's an honour to win a medal in this competition, and our guys respect the fans, and respect each other, and I expect them to play hard."
© Copyright (c) canada.com