Mother Russia Rises at WJC’s

For the first two periods of Wednesday night’s gold medal game of the 2011 World Junior Championships, Team Canada executed to perfection a game plan that had them fully and completely dominating Team Russia. Their forechecking efforts put constant pressure on the Russian defense, and they managed to remain on the right side of the law with their hard hits, staying out of the penalty box while compiling a seemingly insurmountable 3-0 lead.

And when Russian captain Vladimir Tarasenko was left lying motionless on the ice after a collision with Canadian forward Marcus Foligno late in the second period (with what turned out to be a rib injury), any remaining whips of wind appeared to have been sucked out of the Russian’ sails.

As the third period began with the result seemingly a fait accompli, the Canadian club needing only to stick to their highly effective strategy for 20 more minutes in order to capture gold. But the Russians were to have none of it, initiating an offensive that would go down as one of the finest come-from-behind performances in hockey history.

The onslaught began when Artemi Panarin batted a puck past Canadian netminder Mark Visentin, and just 13 seconds later Maxim Kitsyn did the same to cut Canada’s lead to 3-2. From that point, it was clear that the shellshocked Canadians were — for the first time in the tournament’s medal round — in very serious trouble.

The Russian comeback was completed in dramatic fashion about five minutes later, when Tarasenko ripped a one-timer past Visentin to tie the score. And while the Canadians failed to regain their composure nor their control of the game, the Russians kept on charging forward. With just under five minutes remaining, Tarasenko set up Panarin for the goal that gave Russia the lead, and Nikita Dvurechenski sealed the game with just over a minute to play.

When all was said and done, the Canadians were left scratching their heads wondering why they’d diverted from their highly successful strategy, essentially opening the door for the Russians to mount their comeback. And hockey pundits from Saskatoon to Suomi were wondering how they’d managed to completely overlook this talented, hard-working Russian squad.

Indeed, while the emergence of the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) has given the NHL meaningful competition for the best Russian players, the reduction in the players’ “signability” (where the NHL is concerned) should not be misconstrued as a depreciation of the talent pool. As Tarasenko (a St. Louis Blues prospect) and Evgeny Kuznetsov (a Washington Capitals prospect) demonstrated throughout the tournament, Russia’s best players still compare quite favorably to those from Canada, the United States, and Scandinavia. Indeed, their comeback came at the expense of a Canadian team that featured four former first round picks on its blue line (Ryan Ellis, Jared Cowan, Calvin de Haan, and Erik Gudbranson) and another in goal (Visentin).

No question, Russia’s comeback can’t merely be chalked up to the Canadian players “choking,” for it had plenty to do with the Russians’ skill and tenacity.

It’s also important to remember just how young these players are. Seven members of Team Canada — Visentin, defenseman Gudbranson and forwards Sean Couturier, Jaden Schwartz, Quinton Howden, Ryan Johansen and Brett Connolly — are eligible to play in next year’s tournament, while for Russia, all but Kuznetsov were in their final year of eligibility. The difference between age 18 and 19 is quite significant in terms of physical development, experience, and maturity, and the Russian squad were able to draw from that when executing their scintillating comeback.

While it was a painful loss for Canada, it was also a tremendous learning experience, filled with lessons that should serve them well in their NHL careers and in future international competition.

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