It’s Canada versus Russia in the gold medal game of the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship, essentially pitting the tournament’s two best – and perhaps most dominant – teams in a winner-takes-all classic that has the hockey world licking its chops. It’s not always in the nature of the tournament to see two such clear-cut top-flight finalists (albeit, Finland was right there in the mix) make their way to one final Battle Royale, but here we are.
How impressive have these teams been? Well, the closest games Canada played were 4-2 and 5-2 outings against upstart Latvia and Belarus. They sandwiched those games with 12-1, 7-0, 10-3, and 8-1 results, simply crushing powerhouse Sweden by a combined score of 20-2 in two games. Russia survived a 5-1 deficit against the host USA to win 7-6 overtime and then swallowed a disappointing 4-3 OT loss to Finland. Alas, the red machine hasn’t looked back since, winning four games to the tune of a combined score of 28-9.
Sure, that’s all real mind-blowing, but the excitement these teams’ statistics and results have been generating is quite possibly overshadowed by a plot line that few U18 tournaments have ever been able to feature. Yes, we mean “ever”. And yes, we know that the U18 tournament has featured the likes of Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, Sebastian Aho, David Pastrnak, Jack Eichel, Seth Jones, and Victor Hedman in recent years, just to name a precious few household names.
But there may never been a match-up like this at the U18 Worlds before.
That plot line we’re referring to is known as “Bedard vs. Michkov”. It’s real. It’s big. And it’s got the entire hockey world chirping with glee.
The most eye-opening aspect of this match-up of mega talents is that each one of these young men is an underager at this tournament. In fact, Bedard is - wait for it - just 15 years old. You read right - 15!
Connor Bedard plays for Canada and Matvei Michkov for Russia. Bedard is an all-round weapon who loves to score and can set up his teammates at a very high rate. Michkov is a rocket of a player who simply loves to put the puck in the net and does just that in every way imaginable. Both have placed their wares on display all tournament long. And they’re doing it against players who are 2-3 years older!
In fact, Bedard has scored to the tune of six goals, 12 points, and a +10 in six games while Michkov has hit the back of the net 11 times, chipping in two assists and a +7 along the way. That means Bedard is third in tournament scoring while Michkov leads all scorers, having four more goals than runners up Shane Wright of Canada and Salmu Salminen of Finland.
These are underagers, mind you, two years ahead of their draft season. That bears repeating.
Your first thought may be “Sounds like Sidney Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin all over again!”, but you’re far from the first to think that. In fact, talk in hockey prospect circles has been moving in exactly that direction all winter long as the hockey world dreams of a renewed rivalry of extraordinary hockey talents whose legacy should end up in years of championship competition at the NHL and international levels. By the time these two players are selected, quite possibly first and second overall, in the 2023 NHL Entry Draft, Crosby and Ovechkin will be concluding basically two decades of heated NHL rivalry that has seen their two teams go head-to-head on numerous occasions in creating NHL playoff and international hockey history.
What we are witnessing in this tournament is historical for the two nations that’ll duke it out for gold tonight. Bedard is about the hottest thing to come along in Canada since Connor McDavid (no disrespect to Wright). Bedard’s famous namesake had the highest scoring U18 tournament ever for a Canadian underager when he put up eight goals and 14 points in winning gold at the 2013 U18 Worlds. He did so as a 16-year-old. And like Bedard, he was all the talk as the next great thing. He achieved that feat in Sochi, Russia. So, yes, the plot somehow thickens.
For Michkov, a hat trick tonight (no pressure, Matvei) would tie him with the 14 goals Ovechkin scored at the 2002 U18 Worlds, a mark that has never been topped. Ovechkin too was first 16 when he achieved that in eight games, one more than Michkov will be able to play in Texas.
As such, a big game tonight from either, or both, will see (even more) U18 history be made.
We’d be remiss not to mention the single greatest U18 top scorer to date, current Stanley Cup champion Nikita Kucherov, who scored 11 goals and 21 points in 2011. One’s got think that Michkov has his eye on surpassing those 11 goals, even if the 9-point night necessary to surpass that points record can be deemed unlikely. Nonetheless, Michkov has already surpassed Kucherov’s scoring record elsewhere, namely in Russia’s top junior circuit, the MHL. There, Michkov popped in 38 goals and 56 points in 56 regular season contests, breaking Kucherov’s league record of 29+25 in 53 games in the 2009/10 season. In fact, Kucherov’s impressive season took place a year before he was draft eligible. Michkov beat that record two years before he’ll be drafted.
That scoring pensum certainly isn’t coming out of nowhere. Michkov had already put up the second-best season ever in Russia’s top U16 circuit with 109 points in just 26 games the season before. Yikes!
Taking that into consideration, it’s hard to imagine that the 15-year-old Bedard could possibly keep up, but he’s been busy making history himself. After tearing things apart for West Van Academy Prep in British Columbia, most recently with 86 points in 37 games in a U18 league as a 14-year-old, Bedard became the seventh player ever to gain exceptional player status for one of the CHL junior leagues. With the Western Hockey League being one of the leagues delayed by the worldwide pandemic, Bedard joined up with the HV71 program in Sweden, managing four points in four games for the U20 team. He then snuck in 15 WHL games in preparation for this U18 Worlds, collecting an otherworldly 12 goals and 28 points along the way.
As his scoring exploits at this tournament have gone to show, his being mentioned in the same breath as McDavid and Crosby does not appear to be a fluke or exaggeration.
So, who is going to end up on top tonight? Which of these young titans is going to hold the initial bragging rights over the other as their careers only just begin to bud?
And will this be the first of many championship battles between Bedard and Michkov, much like those we’ve been so blessed to see between Crosby and Ovechkin for the better part of this century?
As always, the U18 Worlds is giving us all a glimpse into the future of the sport.
The future of this rivalry officially begins tonight.
And so dawns perhaps the era of the next great rivalry, one brimming with the promises to grant the next generation of hockey fans all the thrills and excitement this generation has experienced with “Crosby vs. Ovechkin”.