Golden lessons from 2011

After the dramatic Canada-Russia final, what did we learn?

06.01.2011
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HSBC Arena Buffalo New York United States

One lesson learned from the 2011 IIHF World U20 Championship was not to question Russia's heart. Photo: Matthew Manor / HHOF-IIHF Images

Everyone will remember Russia’s dramatic comeback in its 5-3 gold medal win over Canada at the 2011 World Juniors. But what about the big picture? IIHF.com’s Lucas Aykroyd offers ten lessons to take away from Buffalo.

1. Canada-Russia remains the greatest rivalry

It has become fashionable in Canada to hype its cross-border hockey rivalry with the United States as the hottest thing going. Doubtless, that impression has been stoked by the large number of Americans chosen in the first round of the NHL draft each year, as well as the two recent all-North America Olympic finals that Canada won (2002, 2010).

However, the reality remains that since 1999, Canada and Russia have faced off seven times in the World Junior gold medal game. In those meetings, Russia has won four times (1999, 2002, 2003, 2011) and Canada three times (2005, 2006, 2007). The Americans, meanwhile, have managed to defeat Canada in the final twice in that span (2004, 2010), and have disappointed in every other case, the bronzes of 2007 and 2011 notwithstanding.

The American Eagle needs to sharpen its claws before it can seriously challenge the Russian Bear as Canada’s greatest rival.

2. Bodychecking is not a cure-all solution

Anyone who listened to the Canadian media prior to the gold medal game would have concluded that all Team Canada needed to do was pound the Russians into submission in the first period and victory was guaranteed. However, the Russians weathered the Canadian physical assault early on, began to throw more hits of their own as the game wore on, and won the open ice they wanted to execute plays.

The lesson is clear. The Canadians may be the biggest and best when it comes to bodychecking, but they don’t have a monopoly on physical play. And if you push back, sometimes they’ll fold, just as they hope other teams will when they apply the battering-ram approach.

3. Timing is everything for coaches

In the final, Russia’s Valeri Bragin had good timing, and Canada’s Dave Cameron didn’t.

Unlike Vyacheslav Bykov’s questionable decision to leave Yevgeni Nabokov in goal until Canada led 6-1 in the Olympic quarterfinal in Vancouver, Bragin wisely chose to send a wake-up call to his roster by pulling Dmitri Shikin when the red-and-white opponents went up 3-0 in the second period. It wasn’t that Shikin had performed terribly, but it was a signal to his team.

Meanwhile, in the third period, Cameron didn’t call a time-out to settle down his squad until Russian captain Vladimir Tarasenko had tied the score at 3-3. By that time, the momentum had already swung irreversibly in Russia’s favour. Cameron’s gesture was too little, too late.

4. Age matters

It’s been said for many years that this is a tournament for 19-year-olds. Russia went with exclusively 1991-born players, with the exception of 18-year-old phenom Yevgeni Kuznetsov. Canada, meanwhile, iced five 1992-born players in the final, including goalie Mark Visentin, who was unable to come up with clutch saves down the stretch. Looks like there’s something to the old truism.

5. Don’t question Russia’s heart

Just as it’s unfair to stereotype Canadian players as crude barbarians who simply dump the puck in, hit everything in sight, and bang in rebounds, it’s equally silly to claim that Russian players are effete wimps who rely solely on skill, lack determination, and vanish in key situations. In its last three World Junior gold medal victories, Russia has come from behind to defeat Canada in each case. It rallied from a 4-2 deficit in 2002, a 2-1 deficit in 2003, and, of course, a 3-0 deficit this year. (Not to mention its preceding comeback wins over Finland and Sweden.)

Even a rib injury after being hit by a skate didn’t stop Russian captain Vladimir Tarasenko on January 5.

6. The Super Series was a sign

No, we’re not talking about the 2007 junior Canada-Russia Super Series, where the Canadians easily prevailed with seven wins and one tie. Think back to November, when the latest incarnation of the Subway Super Series was played. It’s a yearly six-game tour of Canada by Russian junior all-stars, facing off against the best of the QMJHL, OHL, and WHL.

The Russians had never won the series since 2003 (the year of their last World Junior title). Until November, that is, when they prevailed with four wins and two losses. Incidentally, their leading scorers, with six points apiece, were Maxim Kitsyn and Nikolai Dvurechenski, both of whom tallied for Russia in the gold medal game.

7. Kuznetsov looks like the next Malkin

While Canada’s Brayden Schenn impressed throughout the tournament with his goal-scoring and playmaking abilities, tying Dale McCourt’s Canadian record of 18 points, it was Yevgeni Kuznetsov, who saved his very best for the playoff round. Not only did he singlehandedly save Russia from quarterfinal disaster versus Finland by racking up two goals, including the OT winner, and an assist, but he also helped set up three of Russia’s five goals against Canada. And as the 18-year-old did so, his “swooping hawk” profile and deft puckhandling resembled nothing more closely than Russian international veteran and 2009 Conn Smythe Trophy winner Yevgeni Malkin.

It will be fascinating to see how the Traktor Chelyabinsk winger, whose NHL rights belong to Washington, pans out when he begins to fill out. (He is still a relatively slight 184 cm and 78 kg.)

8. They’re stars, but they’re kids too

Now, take a moment, and set aside what was just said about Kuznetsov. Remember to treasure the memories of the young talents you watched on both sides, because there’s no telling whether they will go on to pro stardom and Olympic glory, or simply eke out journeyman careers. Unless you’re dealing with surefire prospects like Sidney Crosby or Alexander Ovechkin, that question mark is always there.

Think of Igor Grigorenko and Yuri Trubachev, who keyed Russia’s offence in the 2003 gold medal game. They’ve had respectable but not legendary careers in the Russian league. Or what about Canadian goalie Justin Pogge? He shut out Russia 5-0 in the 2006 final, but at age 24, he’s played just seven NHL games and currently toils for the AHL’s Charlotte Checkers.

9. Canada will be fine

As per usual when Canada loses a big international tournament, the country has sunk into a black funk that could only be topped if Tim Hortons went out of business and Neil Young was eaten by a polar bear. However, let’s be objective: Canada has made the World Junior final ten years in a row, a level of consistency that is the envy of every other hockey nation.

The Canadians also still have the deepest talent pool, and the most overwhelming love of the game, which will become apparent when Calgary and Edmonton co-host the 2012 World Juniors. A total attendance of 573,417 is projected, which would amazingly outstrip the 2004 IIHF World Championship attendance record of 552,097, set in the Czech Republic.

10. The result is good for hockey

Young Russian players will be inspired to defend their title in 2012. Canada will be hungry for revenge. The Americans will be keen to prove that, after underachieving at home, their sum can for once surpass their parts. Sweden, which has brought a “We’re ready to win” attitude since the 2008 tournament, will be raring to snap a 30-year drought. The Finns, Swiss, Czechs, and Slovaks will be even more fed up with having gone home empty-handed at recent World Juniors.

It’s a fun, exhilarating tournament, and in so many ways, from the fan response to the skill and heart of the players, it just seems to get better every year. That’s something all hockey lovers can be grateful for.

LUCAS AYKROYD

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