The Russians were coming, again. Everyone remembered what happened the last time, everyone. Everyone knew. Canada had blown out to a 5-1 lead and it wasn’t even halfway through the game, and the party was on, but the Russians are hard in this tournament. The Russians were coming.
“We didn’t panic — or certainly tried not to panic — throughout the game,” said centre Sam Reinhart, who took the game’s final faceoff. “We stuck with it. The third period was the fastest period of my life.”
It was almost exactly four years ago that the Russian hockey coach Valeri Bragin said, “If you play against Canada, those games show what kind of players you (have).” His players caved Canada in not long after that, and that was the last time this country played for gold in the world juniors, until this. The rest of the hockey world measures itself in relation to Canada, and it should. We still create the best players. We’re still the standard.
Canada hadn’t won gold in five years, though, and hadn’t seen a medal in two, but after a dominant run through this tournament they were up four goals and the building was rocking back and forth. It looked like the grown-ups in Sochi, but with more pucks getting through.
But these Russia kids were defiant. Max Domi jabbed at Pavel Buchnevich before the puck was dropped, went chest-to-chest, mirroring linemate Anthony Duclair’s sandpaper to begin the American game; it’s something reserved for the serious opponents, maybe. As soon as the game started Buchnevich knocked Domi to the ice and skated away.
Russia’s Dmitri Yudin all but flipped the bird to the Canadian bench when they scored their first goal after giving up two in 2½ minutes, and Ziat Paigin smashed at the glass, where the red and white-clad Canadians sat. Even when it was 5-1, after goals from Duclair, Nick Paul, Connor McDavid on a breakaway, Domi and Sam Reinhart, the Russians didn’t stop. Two goals in 32 seconds; three goals in 3:16. Canada went into the second intermission with the ice cracking under their feet, and short-handed.
As they had during their timeout, they resurrected the tic-tac-tao joke that sprang from coach Benoit Groulx’s heavily-accented English. They tried to tell each other that before the tournament, they would have taken a one-goal lead going into the final period of a gold medal game, all day. They tried not to lose it.
“We weren’t scared or anything, or intimidated at all, going into the third period,” said defenceman Madison Bowey.
For the final 20 minutes, though, the pressure was finally on. Every play was a potential tying goal; it was just four years ago that Russia scored five times in the third to take gold away. Zach Fucale wasn’t handling pucks clean, not quite, and some Canadian sticks looked a little shaky. They were fighting the Russians, and trying to control themselves. Defenceman Darnell Nurse, in particular, loomed like a giant, burying Russians.
“He was unbelievable,” said 17-year-old winger Lawson Crouse. “You just have to stay simple, and not do too many things. The nerves are obviously going to get to you, but you have to do the right things.”
And when the horn sounded it was still 5-4 for Canada, and it was gold for the first time since 2009. Canada had to earn it. That was fair.
“We were very dominant all tournament,” said McDavid.
“The weight was kind of off our shoulders,” said defenceman Josh Morrissey.
“In the end, I mean, it’s a game,” said winger Curtis Lazar, the captain. “It’s a game we love, the fans love it, we love it, the refs love it, and we’re all out here competing and having fun. I mean, that’s why I always have a smile on my face. I get to play the game every day. To have this medal around my neck . . . ”
They never trailed in seven games. They had to hold on with an entire nation watching them, with a Russian team that wasn’t afraid and knew what could happen, and they held. Bragin was right when he said you learned what kind of players you had when you played Canada. In this game, Canada learned what kind of players they had, too.
“What a way to finish a game and win a gold medal,” said Groulx. “We’re very lucky to have these guys playing for us.”
The morning of the gold medal game Morrissey and Bowey, his roommate, woke up, and it was like it was Christmas. Morrissey said, “Today’s the day that we’ve been working for, for a month now together, but really our whole lives for this moment.”
“We kind of talked about it, like holy smokes, think about all the world juniors you watched on TV, all the gold medal games, the Olympics, the amazing moments there’s been. For me, I thought about last year, and getting to the semifinals, and not being able to make it all the way. For us, it’s such an amazing opportunity. For me, it’s my last opportunity ever to be able to do something at this tournament, and we really want to end it off on a great note.”