OTTAWA – Based on what happened in the Preliminary Round, few would have guessed that today's bronze medal game would pit Russia versus Slovakia. The Russians romped to an 8-1 victory over Slovakia on December 30, but a lot of things have changed since then.
Slovakia pulled one of the biggest upsets in World Junior history by earning a 5-3 quarter-final win over an American squad stacked with eight NHL first-round picks. The Slovaks also gave Sweden a tough time through 40 minutes in the semi-finals before allowing four third-period goals to lose 5-3.
After all the talk about the consistent decline of Slovakian hockey, it has to be personally refreshing for this year's squad to have made it this far. The Slovaks have an opportunity to do today to replicate the feat their countrymen achieved in 1999: win a bronze medal on Canadian ice. To date, that's the best result the Central European nation has posted at the World Juniors.
So even though Slovakia didn't make it all the way to the gold medal game, you'd still have to classify it as the Cinderella team of the 2009 tournament.
The spectacular goaltending of Jaroslav Janus in the elimination games will garner him some votes for the tournament all-star team. Young guns like Tomas Tatar (six goals and nine points), Adam Bezak (four goals, one assist), and Richard Panik (two goals and two assists) have emerged as genuine offensive threats. Those players must all step up on the counterattack, and Slovakia must stay committed to playing frustratingly tight defence if it's to have any chance of beating a more talented Russian squad.
Meanwhile, we'll soon see if the Russian train can get back up to speed after its stop at Heartbreak Station on January 3 versus Canada. In hockey, it doesn't get much more heartbreaking than being 5.4 seconds away from a berth in the gold medal game, surrendering a tying goal, and then losing in a shootout.
The Russians weren't necessarily gold medal favourites heading into this tournament, but they had an opportunity to get revenge on Canada after losing three out of the last four gold medal games to their historical archrival (2005, 2006, 2007), not to mention their devastating failure in the 2007 Canada/Russia Super Series. Letting that opportunity slip away in a 6-5 loss will linger with these young players for a long time.
Are the Russians mentally tough enough to put the semi-final defeat behind them and vent their frustrations on the Slovakian net? The start of the game may tell the story. The longer the Russians let Slovakia stay in the game, the better chance the underdogs have of coming away with the bronze.
On the other hand, a few quick tallies from the likes of captain and leading scorer Nikita Filatov (six goals, three assists), Sergei Andronov (three goals, five assists), or Dmitri Klopov (five goals, two assists) could deflate Slovakia's hopes. Klopov, in particular, should be eager to get some redemption after being the guy who took the late icing call versus Canada that led to the 5-5 tying goal.
At one time, Russia brought virtually the same “gold or bust” attitude to this tournament that Canada does. Expectations have been tempered, since Russia hasn't come in top spot since 2003. Getting a second straight bronze at the World Juniors is worth something. If, and only if, coach Sergei Nemchinov can get that message through to his troops, Russia should prevail.