Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Heartbreak at HSBC

Well this is a combination kick in the shins and a punch to the teeth. Taking a 3-0 lead into the third period of the gold medal game, writers in the press box at HSBC Arena were already typing up their ledes for the next day's papers about how Canada found success as a lunchbucket team, a gritty group of 22 individuals who put the crest on the front of the jersey ahead of the nameplate on the back.

But they will all have been incredibly, absolutely wrong. Five Russian goals came against Mark Visentin, the weakest of the two goalies the Canadians employed, and his status as a cult hero on the level of Justin Pogge vanished in less than a 20-minute span.

"This is the greatest collapse in the history of the World Junior" said Pierre McGuire before the last faceoff, and that turned out to be the only right thing he said this tournament.

But there was more going on here. Lost in the epic collapse of the final 20 minutes is a Russian team that wouldn't quit. They had miracle comebacks against Finland and the Swedish in the quarter and semifinals, and it wasn't for lack of character.

Even in this gold medal game, the Russian comeback seemed imminent at the end of the first period, when Canada was up just 1-0. Russia had a string of scoring chances but it was Carter Ashton who put Canada up 2-0. After Zack Kassian clipped Vladimir Tarasenko in the second with a 3-0 lead, Russia could have thrown in the towel. Yahoo Sports' token Russian Dmitry Chesnokov was spouting the benefits of Europeans using North American sized ice rinks.

The way Russia came back is elementary compared to why. After Sergey Berezin scored the late semifinal goal against Sweden, I messaged a Russian journalist friend, and asked him if Berezin was equal to Jordan Eberle.

"No," was the simple answer. It was Evgeny Kuznetsov. Before the Russia and Finland game, Finnish captain Sami Vatanen had talked trash about the Russian team in the interview, how the Fins were looking ahead to Sweden, and singled out Kuznetsov as a player he wasn't scared of.

Well, Kuznetsov scored a late one to pull Russia to within one against the Fins before also tallying one in overtime. "Do you notice who I beat on that play?" Kuznetsov asked my friend. It was, of course, Vatanen.

This Russian team was a Canadian team, or everything we'd hope to see in a Canadian team. They were resilient in every respect and never said die. Meanwhile, their opponents on this cold heartbreak of a Wednesday night fell apart with a 3-0 lead. The team stopped dumping the puck in and chasing. They stopped skating, backchecking, hitting, or taking shots. Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn, the two players who were to carry the bulk of the scoring load for the Canadians, were invisible at best. While Schenn ended up tying a the Canadian record for scoring at this tournament, he will never, ever, want to remember the circumstances.

In all honesty, this could be a good loss for Canada. For years we've taken this tournament for granted that we'd win, and pin so much pressure on these 19-year old kids as we flock to whatever venue, no matter where in the world. This year, it caught up with them, and the team, despite an emotionally convincing win against the Americans, couldn't stomach a 3-0 lead in the final period. While last year's team fell short despite their own miracle comeback, this team fell under pressure, and it was bound to happen someday. Consider this our reality check.

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