OTTAWA – The Canada-Russia rivalry is very much alive at the senior level. In Saturday's second semi-final, we'll get a feel for where it stands at the junior level.
Since the IIHF officially inaugurated the World Junior Championship in 1977, Canada has won 14 gold medals. Russia's tally, including the days of the Soviet Union, sits at 11.
But those relatively equal-sounding numbers mask where the rivalry has gone in recent years.
The Russians essentially owned Canada between 1998 and 2003 (with the exception of a 5-2 Canadian round-robin win at the 2002 tournament), but that trend has been radically reversed. Canada hasn't lost to Russia at the World Juniors since the 2003 gold medal game, which was also the last time Russia took top spot.
Compounding Russia's frustration was the 2007 Canada/Russia Super Series, an eight-game tilt that didn't exactly live up to its name in terms of competitiveness. The lads with the red Maple Leaf crest racked up seven wins and one tie, including a sweep of the Russian leg in Ufa and Omsk. At these World Juniors, three returning members from Canada's Super Series entry still carry over the confidence they gained there: captain Thomas Hickey, two-way threat Zach Boychuk, and leading scorer John Tavares.
Currently, the confidence of the four-time defending gold medal champions has to be high after rallying from a 3-0 deficit for an emotional 7-4 win over the Americans. Head coach Pat Quinn's decision to give Dustin Tokarski the start in goal again after the Spokane Chiefs keeper had a shaky start on New Year's Eve further reflects that the host team is staying the course.
And likely getting Boychuk back in the lineup despite an injured ankle just reinforces that positive feeling. Tavares and Cody Hodgson have been the tournament's most dangerous offensive players.
The main question for the Canadians is how they'll fare in a tight, intense game: while the game against the Americans was played in a frenzied atmosphere, it certainly wasn't “tight.” It's hard to predict whether the mercurial Russians will offer that kind of test.
Russia has had its moments here in Ottawa, both good and bad. Obliterating the Slovaks 8-1 in round-robin play was a good thing. Getting blanked by goalie Jacob Markstrom in the Group A finale versus Sweden, not so much. It took a while for Russia to get its game in sync versus the Czechs in the quarter-final, but that was still better preparation for facing Canada than another easy romp would have provided.
Fatigue from playing back-to-back games may be a factor for the Russians. Only twice has a successful quarter-final team gone on to win gold: Canada in 1997 and 2008.
Captain Nikita Filatov, the future Columbus Blue Jackets star who has tallied six goals in Ottawa, needs to come through with his best game of the tournament. Russia will need good secondary offensive support as well versus the tournament's highest-scoring team in Canada, perhaps from the trio of Evgeni Dadonov, Nikita Klyukin, and Dmitri Klopov. In addition, without better-than-solid goaltending and an avoidance of radical defensive lapses, Russia is unlikely to win.
In three previous Russia-Canada semi-final clashes, here's what happened:
January 3, 1996: Paced by two Jason Podollan goals and a 46-save performance by Jose Theodore, Canada outlasted Russia 4-3 in Boston, USA.
January 3, 1997: Boyd Devereaux's third-period pair lifted Canada to a 3-2 victory over Russia in Geneva, Switzerland.
January 3, 2000: Andrei Essipov scored the third-period winner on Maxime Ouellet as Russia beat Canada 3-2 in Skelleftea, Sweden.
Besides keeping its drive for five alive, Hockey Canada doesn't have to look too far back to provide extra incentive for its U20 team to prevail. The facts are well-known.
Russia dethroned Canada's reign as Olympic champions with a 2-0 quarter-final shutout in Turin in 2006. Then, Ilya Kovalchuk's overtime goal gave Russia a 5-4 win over Canada in the gold medal game of the 2008 IIHF World Championship in Quebec City.
Now the onus is on Canada to not let Russia spoil their home-ice party for the second time in less than eight months.