Tuesday, January 4, 2005
Updated: January 5, 8:32 PM ET
Canada ends dominating tourney run with gold
By Scott Burnside
Special to ESPN.com
GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- Men to boys, giants to sprites, mountains to mole hills. Take your pick as Canada's national junior team ended a dominating run at the World Junior Championship by thrashing Russia 6-1 in the gold-medal game Tuesday night.
The Russians -- led by the top two picks in last summer's NHL entry draft, Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin -- were supposed to represent the first true challenge for a Canadian team that had outscored opponents 35-6 in its first five games. Instead, the Russians crumbled like every other team did in the face of a relentless Canadian forecheck, bruising physical play on defense and a wildly skillful roster from top to bottom.
"We talked about striving for perfection and they did that every day. They're gold medalists because they deserve to be. I think the scores show that," Canadian head coach Brent Sutter said.
Speaking through an interpreter, Russian head coach Sergey Gersonskiy still got it right, saying, "The game was absolutely amazing for Canada."
The Canadians lost the gold-medal games in 2002 and '03 to Russia. In all, Canada had lost the last three gold-medal games and had not won gold since 1997.
"This is the big one. We're going to enjoy this for many years to come. Every time you see the guys, there's going to be a bond," said Ryan Getzlaf, who helped Canada put its stamp on the game 51 seconds in, blasting a slap shot past a bewildered Anton Khudobin in the Russian net. It wasn't so much a goal as a gesture of defiance.
As the tournament progressed and Canada continued to chew up opponents, the question became what would happen when they finally played an opponent that rivaled their skill level and maturity. The Russians were thought to be that team, but the ease with which the Canadians controlled the game reinforces the notion that this is the finest Canadian junior team ever.
Under the NHL-style leadership of Sutter, the Canadian players never let up. There was never a moment of tentativeness, never questions of self-doubt or of focus -- even when players were peppered with questions about last year's gold-medal collapse against the U.S. prior to Tuesday's championship game.
Although the first period ended with a 2-1 Canadian lead, Canada, as it had throughout the tournament, simply found another level of play that could not be matched, scoring four unanswered goals in the second frame.
Following a long tradition of spotty Russian goaltending at the international level, Khudobin would face only eight shots, giving up three goals in that span before giving way to Andrei Kuznetsov, who was immediately pelted with rubber, giving up three more Canadian goals before the end of the second period.
The third period was almost absent of whistles, as though both teams understood it was merely a prelude to the ritual on-ice celebration the Canadians had waited so long to enjoy. While the Russians looked on, some weeping, the Canadians piled on one another as the final buzzer sounded.
With his right arm in a sling following a second-period shoulder injury, Ovechkin said the game "went south" for Russia after Canada took the early lead and then started taking the body. The Russians were never in the game after, he said. Gersonskiy said Ovechkin may need surgery.
If there was one play that typified the Canadian performance, not just in this game but in the entire tournament, it was their fourth goal.
With the Russians attempting a shorthanded rush, Dion Phaneuf, who was selected best defenseman in the tournament, launched a body check that took out not one but two Russian attackers. Canada seized the puck and moments later tournament MVP Patrice Bergeron finished off a rush with linemates Sidney Crosby and Corey Perry to make the score 4-1.
Had the NHL not locked out its players in September, Bergeron would be skating with the Boston Bruins, with whom he scored 16 times and had 39 points as a rookie last season.
He joined the junior team and instead of chafing at returning to junior competition seized a leadership role. He was especially important in working with 17-year-old phenom Crosby, one of only two players eligible to return for next year's tournament in Vancouver.
"It is the experience of my life. I just enjoyed the time so much here. I was so happy every day. I'll never forget that," said Bergeron, who was named tournament MVP, leading all players with 13 points.
With only Crosby and defenseman Danny Syvret around to build next year's team in Vancouver, Hockey Canada will in some ways be starting from scratch in defending its gold.
But that is a worry for another day for a nation that has returned to international hockey prominence on every front. The World Junior champions join Canada's national men's team, the defending Olympic and World Cup of Hockey champions and Canada's women, who are the defending world and Olympic champion teams, at the pinnacle of their respective hockey mountains.
In Canada, where record television audiences watched the WJC on television and dominated the crowds at the Ralph Engelstad Arena, it doesn't get any better than that.
Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.