Is Canada the favourite?

Canada's Curtis Lazar and Russia's Vyacheslav Osnovin during the nations last encounter at the World Juniors, last year in the bronze medal game. Photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images

Home crowd great, but Russia plays well here

For much of the Preliminary Round it looked as though Russia was a disinterested team playing just barely well enough not to be in the Relegation Round.

And surely they were not good enough to make it past the quarter-finals.

Today, the team is playing for gold and looks impressive in many ways, but the Russians are playing the home team, the team with a 6-0-0 record and a goals for/against of 34-5, the team that hasn’t won gold since 2009. It promises to be another classic showdown in a rivalry that began in 1954 and has been the lynchpin of international hockey ever since.

First, the recent history. Of course, last year Russia beat Canada, 6-5, in the bronze-medal game, a game that is traditionally tougher for Canadians to play than any other top nations because gold is expected.

The last time the U20 was in Canada, in Calgary and Edmonton in 2012, the Russians beat Canada 6-5 in the semi-finals. Recall in that game the Russians led 6-1 only to see Canada rally to 6-5 and then hit the post late in the third period. It was an incredible comeback, but a bad loss all the same.

The previous year in Buffalo (for the Canadians it was a “home” tournament, to be sure), the Canadians were up 3-0 after two periods only to implode and lose 5-3 in the gold-medal game.

In 2010, Canada lost, 6-5, to the United States in the gold medal game, and in 2009, in Ottawa, Canada beat the Russians, 6-5, on Jordan Eberle’s heroics. Canada beat Russia for gold in 2006, 5-0, and 6-1 the previous year in Grand Forks, another ostensibly home game for the Canucks. And, of course, in 2003, Alexander Ovechkin and Co. beat Canada 3-2 in Halifax.

Indeed, Russia has won gold four times since 1999, and three have been in Canada or in front of predominantly Canadian fans – 1999 in Winnipeg, 2002 in the Czech Republic, 2003 in Halifax, and 2011 in Buffalo.

Canada is hosting the World Juniors for the 11th time this year, and only once has Russia failed to win a medal on Canadian soil, 2010 in Saskatoon. Canada has never failed to win a medal itself, a streak that will obviously continue today.

In short, despite the incredible fans at the Air Canada Centre, the location of the game isn't likely to favour Canada as much as one would think.

But what makes the difference between gold and silver today, winning and losing, tears of joy and tears of despair?

Goaltending. Several Swedish players yesterday spoke of Igor Shestyorkin in less than flattering terms. They called him weak, a goalie who gave up too many rebounds. Zach Fucale, meanwhile, has been rock solid, but he hasn’t been spectacular because the defence has been so good he hasn’t had a chance to be great. Yesterday, though, he was as good as can be asked of him. The edge appears to go to Canada here.

Defence. Neither team has generated much offence from the blue line. Canada’s defencemen have scored three goals and the Russian’s have scored twice. Canada has surrendered only five goals and the Russians 12, but it has been a team concept for defence in its own end rather than one superstar leading the blueliners.

Offence. Canada has unquestionably the superior offence, having scored 34 goals to Russia’s 20. It also has several breakout players including Connor McDavid, Sam Reinhart, Nic Petan, and Curtis Lazar. Those four have accounted for 40 scoring points, but every line has contributed. Coach Benoit Groulx made one key change during the semi-finals yesterday when he put McDavid and Petan on a line together.

"They were a dominant line," he gushed after, without promising to keep the pairing together for the gold-medal game. But make no mistake, he will. They were too good together not to be together again.

The Russians have spread their scoring much thinner, although Alexander Sharov (four) and Vyacheslav Leshenko (three) lead the way. The team lacks that explosive, game-breaker forward which can be such an intimidating factor.

Special Teams. Canada has scored on nearly half its power plays, while the Russians are less than one-third successful. Canada has also surrendered but one power-play goal against to the Russia’s five, again pointing to a Canadian advantage. To make matters worse, Russia has incurred nearly double the penalty minutes as Canada (91-52), so discipline will also be a factor.

As anyone who watches the Russians knows, they are a threat when they move the puck around unselfishly, and they are much easier pickings when they play as individuals, each player trying to go end-to-end without the help of his teammates, one rush after another, one shift after another.

Since the playoff format was implemented by the IIHF exactly 20 years ago, these two nations have played for gold an incredible nine times, by far the most frequent opponents. The nations are familiar with each other, and the players in today’s game will write another chapter in the long history of this rivalry.

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