They’re up against a dangerous Russian squad that handed Canada its worst defeat ever at this tournament, 6-0 on 28 December.
The five returning Canadians from 2019’s sixth-place team – captain Barret Hayton, Alexis Lafreniere, Joe Veleno, Ty Smith, and Jared McIsaac – got partial redemption when they ended Finland's reign as World Junior champions with a 5-0 win on Saturday. That, by the way, was Suomi’s worst semi-final loss ever.
“They definitely wanted these guys back,” said forward Nolan Foote. “It was a sour taste for them, and we did that just fine.”
The Finns, of course, shocked Canada last year with a 2-1 sudden-death quarter-final win at Vancouver’s Rogers Arena. Aleksi Heponiemi tied it up on a last-minute, flukey bounce off his shinpad. Canadian captain Maxime Comtois was stopped on his overtime penalty shot. And Noah Dobson had his stick explode on a great chance to win it seconds before Toni Utunen beat goalie Michael DiPietro to silence the crowd.
That’s all in the rear view mirror now.
Saturday’s semi-final victory in front of 8,693 fans was an “adding insult to injury” kind of evening at Ostravar Arena. Canada not only jumped out to a 4-0 first-period lead, but also avoided punishment when Calen Addison’s high stick cut Sampo Ranta, who got a misconduct for shooting the puck after the whistle.
When Canada takes on Russia on Sunday, it will be the ninth time these archrivals have met in a World Junior final since the IIHF started using the playoff system in 1996. Canada earned three lopsided wins in a row during its five-peat run – 6-1 in 2005, 5-0 in 2006, and 4-2 in 2007 – with superstars like Sidney Crosby, Patrice Bergeron, and Jonathan Toews.
The other finals have all been bona fide thrillers. Russian fans cherish the memory of Artyom Chubarov’s 3-2 overtime winner in Winnipeg in 1999, Anton Volchenkov’s deciding goal in a 5-4 comeback win in Pardubice in 2002, and Yuri Trubachev’s 3-2 marker with under nine minutes left in Halifax in 2003. Most stunning of all was the five-goal third-period rally led by Artemi Panarin and Yevgeni Kuznetsov in a 5-3 win in Buffalo in 2011.
In 2015, Toronto fans got a special treat when Canada built a 5-1 lead and then held on for a 5-4 triumph, with Sam Reinhart’s goal standing up as the difference.
Here in 2020, there is leftover bad blood from the round-robin game.
Yes, Hayton apologized for leaving his helmet on during the Russian national anthem, but that doesn’t mean the Russians, who refused to shake his hand afterwards, have forgiven and forgotten. (The 2018 Arizona Coyotes first-round pick may not be healthy for the final, as he did not return after taking a third-period hit from Finnish captain Lassi Thomson.) And while Veleno’s headbutt on defenceman Danil Misyul didn’t play well, Canada undoubtedly remembers the high, last-minute cross-check Yevgeni Sokolov delivered on Ty Smith with equal displeasure.
Naturally, the protocol is to downplay the rancor, as Canada’s Ty Dellandrea did after scoring his third goal of the tournament against Finland.
Disregarding Canada’s mantra of playing a solid 60 minutes, the Russians edged Sweden in the semi-final with the reckless abandon of a troika driven by a balalaika-playing bear on New Year’s Eve. Squandering a 3-1 first-period lead was not ideal. However, Ivan Morozov’s 5-4 overtime winner was electrifying, and the Russians will look to carry that emotion over into the final.
“The only thing we’ll do [for the gold medal game] is rest and get ready for gold,” Morozov said.
The 19-year-old SKA-Neva St. Petersburg’s breakout performance with two goals against Finland shows Bragin has yet another weapon in his arsenal.
Alexander Khovanov of the QMHL’s Moncton Wildcats has been an emotional and offensive catalyst with a team-high eight points, including two game-winning goals. Grigori Denisenko, a 2019 tournament all-star, and Nikita Alexandrov are motoring along with seven points apiece. And two-year KHL veteran Alexander Romanov (CSKA Moscow), another 2019 all-star, is again among the top-scoring defenders with five points.
Russia’s goaltending is a question mark, as 17-year-old starter Yaroslav Askarov was pulled in favour of Amir Miftakhov after he gave up four Swedish goals on 20 shots. However, it was Miftakhov, a 19-year-old Ak Bars prospect, who recorded a 28-save shutout against Canada in the group stage. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him get the call again.
Going by the numbers, the Canadians’ prowess speaks for itself. They’ve dominated on the power play, clicking at 44.4 percent to Russia’s 21.8, but also quashed Finland by scoring four first-period goals at even strength. With 28 goals, they’re second only to Sweden (29).
There is scoring throughout the lineup, but potential #1 overall pick Alexis Lafreniere is putting on a show with eight points in just four games. Top-pairing defenceman Bowen Byram missed the semi-final due to illness, but Jamie Drysdale stepped up admirably in his place, and Byram is expected back for the gold medal game.
Meanwhile, goalie Joel Hofer’s confidence went up another notch with the 32-save semi-final shutout that saw him named Canada’s Player of the Game.
So will Canada get its revenge? Quite possibly, in the purest sense.
This is international hockey, and it’s a skill-first world in 2020. Revenge no longer consists of the kind of dangerous hit that Hunter, as a member of the Washington Capitals, threw on New York Islanders star Pierre Turgeon in the 1993 NHL playoffs, receiving a 21-game suspension.
The Canadian fans chanted “We want Russia!” as the clock ticked down against Finland. The two Canadian women who participated in a beer-chugging contest on the Jumbotron would undoubtedly love an even better reason to party – along with their compatriots in the stands and back home watching on TSN.
The perfect revenge simply consists of an unforgettable, toastworthy gold-medal win on Sunday. But the Russians will have something to say about that.