TORONTO, CANADA - JANUARY 5: Canadian players celebrate after a 5-4 gold medal game win over Russia at the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Andre Ringuette/HHOF-IIHF Images)
Hockey just doesn't get better than this
Canada twice had the Russians on the ropes, and twice the Russians got back into the game, falling just short in a dramatic and tense gold-medal showdown.
Loud, proud, and sold right out, the 19,014 fans who packed into the Air Canada Centre were treated to another special battle between the two greatest hockey countries. In the end, Canada withstood a fierce comeback from Russia to win its first gold since 2009 and 16th title overall.
"This is amazing," gushed captain Curtis Lazar. "I really wanted to help Canada get back on top, and everyone did their part. I was just along for the ride. We had the momentum; we let it slip away a little bit, but we hung in there."
Lazar was quick to credit the Toronto fans who flocked to games both with Canada and without in remarkable numbers. "The crowd supported us and was with us every step of the way. They were so loud, and to sing the national anthem along with them was special."
Max Domi had a goal and two assists to give him ten points for the tournament, fourth in the scoring race behind three Canadian teammates who all had eleven – Sam Reinhart, Nic Petan, and Connor McDavid.
"We’re World Junior champions," said McDavid succinctly. "It’s joy. Right now, this is just absolute joy."
The Russians had goals from four different scorers, but on this night it was goaltending that was much of the story.
"It was 5-4," lamented Nikolai Goldobin. "Just one goal. And we had the whole third period to score. We started pretty badly. We allowed two goals, weak goals. But we have a great team."
Few junior hockey games in history could match the intensity, animosity, and energy of the first period. Canada came out with an unmatched ferocity and chased goalie Igor Shestyorkin after just 2:32 of playing time.
By that time Canada was up 2-0, and the Russians were reeling. Anthony Duclair opened the scoring after only 23 seconds. Domi took the puck into the corner and feathered a great pass to Duclair at the top of the faceoff circle. In one motion he ripped a shot over Shestyorkin’s glove, sending the crowd into a frenzy.
Two minutes later Brayden Point made a sensational pass to Nick Paul. Point skated down the left wing, patiently waiting for Paul to charge to the goal. At just the right moment, he delivered a perfect backhand pass, and all Paul had to do was get his stick on the puck to deflect it past Shestyorkin as he outmuscled Ivan Provorov in front.
Rather than call a timeout, Russian coach Valeri Bragin decided to yank his starter and insert little used Ilya Sorokin. Canada continued to apply the pressure but couldn’t get a third goal. The hits, however, were massive and frequent, Canada usually getting the better of the physical style of play.
But the Russians didn’t give up. They generated a few quality opportunities but just couldn’t convert until Dmitri Yudin wired a shot that beat Zach Fucale at 9:20. The visitors were back in it and had the better of play the rest of the period.
Although the second period ended with Canada still leading by a goal, the score was now 5-4 and the events of the middle 20 minutes represented a spectacular kaleidoscope of emotions and momentum swings.
Connor McDavid made it 3-1 on a clean breakaway, taking a long pass from Josh Morrissey and beating Sorokin through the legs at 5:08 with clinical precision.
Two minutes later, Domi scored again on a long shot that Sorokin should have stopped, and at 12:30 Sam Reinhart tipped in a Domi shot from the slot to make it 5-1, Domi's third point of the night.
The rout was on, and it seemed only a matter of not if but how many goals Canada would win by, but as was the case early in the game, the Russians kept skating and Canada ran into penalty trouble.
Indeed, the Russians scored three times in 3:16 to close the gap to 5-4 before the period was over. The first and third goals were on the power play and ugly, Fucale unable to stop the shots as the puck trickled over the goal line. The middle goal was a nice two-on-one play, Sergei Tolchinki finishing off the play.
Both teams were nervous in the final period, neither team wanting to make an error to alter the score either way. In the end, the Canadian defence withheld whatever Russia could bring into the offensive end, and as the game ended the ACC exploded into celebration.
"They’re a team that never quits," noted defenceman Josh Morrissey. "They have a lot of skill, and they prey on turnovers. We kinda got a little complacent there in the second period, but I’m so proud of the way we responded in the second intermission and came back out in the third and really locked it down. I guess it was a little more exciting than it had to be, but it was amazing. I’ll never forget it."
After the game, McDavid recalled watching his first World Juniors as a kid. "The team that I remember most vividly was the '05 team and how dominant they were, Sidney Crosby, Bergeron, the list goes on and on. The 6-1 final. It was pretty fun to watch."
And how does this team compare? "We'll see in a couple of years, but in terms of the dominance, we were also very dominant. We didn't even trail once all tournament. If it wasn't for a sloppy five minutes in the second period, we might have had a 6-1 final as well."
Gold was back in Canada for the first time in six years, a long wait but well worth it.