Russians remain the great unknown
When writing about the Russian team in international hockey, it is required that one uses the modifier enigmatic.
As in, the enigmatic Russians crashed out of the Sochi Olympics, finishing fifth on home soil. Or, after the disappointment in Sochi, the enigmatic Russians bounced back to win hockey’s world championship three months later in Minsk.
At this edition of the world junior championship, the Russians have even managed to be curious and unpredictable from game to game. They opened with a baffling effort against Denmark, needing a shootout to put away a side that was playing in the top tier for only the third time ever. The Russians followed up by blasting the Swiss 7-0. Then, in the final game of the preliminary round, they were thumped 4-1 by the Czech Republic — a team that had earlier lost to the Swiss. Seriously, guys, pick a lane. But the enigmatic Russians appear to have finally figured things out. They beat a reasonably mighty United States team 3-2 in the quarter-finals, and on Sunday cruised to a 4-1 victory over a Sweden team that had cruised through the tournament and piled up a 5-0 record on the way to the semis.
That sets the Russians up to be fed into the wood-chipper that has been the Canadian team through 10 days of play. Canada played a surprisingly tense 38 minutes against Slovakia on Sunday night before Nic Petan’s second goal of the game took the tension out of the Air Canada Centre, making the score 2-0 on the way to a 5-1 Canada win.
Petan, a native of Delta, collected a hat trick, playing on a line with terrifying prospect Connor McDavid.
“In the moment, you don’t think about it,” Petan said of the hat trick, which caused dozens of Hockey Canada-issue caps and toques to rain down on the ice. “But years from now, it will be pretty cool …
“It’s one of those nights where the puck finds the goal.”
The Russians, meanwhile, didn’t sound all that worried about their chances in the final. Defenceman Rinat Valiev was asked if he was scared of a matchup against the Canadians in the gold medal game.
“Course not,” he responded, smiling. “It’s an excited feeling, you know. I’ve been waiting for this my whole life, so I’m pretty excited.”
A third-round pick in last year’s NHL draft by the Toronto Maple Leafs, Valiev said the Russians probably didn’t come into that first game against the Danes expecting much of a fight.
“We thought, like, Denmark,” he said, and rolled his eyes just a little.
But, he said, they haven’t taken games lightly since.
The Russians have reason to feel confident.
They beat an American team that forced Canada to win in a thriller on New Year’s Eve, and against Sweden they were clinically effective, bottling up a team that had scored 24 goals in its five games and holding them to only one late marker when the game was out of hand.
As for other good Russian signs, they beat Canada in pretournament exhibition play in Toronto, although there was plenty for the Canadians to like about that game, too.
Russian goalie Igor Shestyorkin, the New York Rangers prospect, was shelled for 51 shots in regulation time, but Canada could beat him only once. Russia managed just 15 shots in the first three periods, but put one past Zach Fucale — and another in overtime — to get the win.
But Canada, which has gone five years without a gold medal in this tournament, has looked very good at various points in those years. Scott Salmond, Hockey Canada’s vice-president of hockey operations, said before the tournament that the difference between winning and losing was slight, and that the home side just needed “to get over that big-game hump.”
But the Russians will present Canada with a sturdy big-game obstacle. They have beaten the Canadians in the medal round in four straight years.
Would they be scared? Course not.