Mission accomplished !
JAN.6 -- High expectations at such hockey events have been always Canadian trademark. The boys wearing Maple Leaf jerseys always hope for gold and treat anything else, even the silver, as a loss no matter what are the circumstances.
Going into this years World Junior Tournament and taking a close look at Russia's roster I expected nothing less than a gold medal performance. Watching Rafail Ishmatov's squad dominate throughout the round robin, while being quite off their A game, it became quite apparent that anything else than a victory for this team should be labeled as a bust.
Heading to the final on Sunday against a strong Canadian team, Russia has yet to play in a close contest at the tourney. The main concerns were whether this team could handle shifty, aggressive Canadians with the authority and flair the previous five opponents were handled... whether Ishmatov"s boys can withstand physical pressure... whether they be able to solve outstanding Marc-Andre Fleury...
An so they did... On Sunday night Team Russia succeeded in defending its World Title beating the host team thanks to a two third period goals in front of a sell-out crowd at the Halifax Metro Center.
HOW IT HAPPENED
After successfully killing off an early penalty to Evgeny Artyukhin Russia dominated for extended waves until the opening goal. The first decent scoring chance for both sides came six minutes into the period: Dmitry Pestunov chipped the puck alongside the boards towards Nikolai Zherdev, who picked it up, skated into the slot and fired a heavy, albeit high, wrist shot - deflected by Fleury. At 7:10 Canada had one of its few opportunities in the game: Kyle Wellwood had a partial break-away, he fired a snap shot from inside the right circle but Medvedev made a stick save... At 9:00 Russia had another strong sequence from Zherdev who played his best hockey of WJC before being unexplainably benched in the final period. Zherdev rushed down the right, deep into Canada's zone. Skated around the net holding off the pressure from defender and centered the puck to Sergei Anshakov. The later took a couple of wacks at it, but was unable to beat Fleury. The following two minutes Canadian defense had trouble digesting Russia's waves. Timofei Shishkanov, Artyukhin, Yuri Trubachev, Alexander Perezhogin had great scoring chances before Andrei Taratukhin got Russia on board. Grigorenko won the battle along the boards against Woywitka and Gordon, while Upshall failed to contain Perezhogin who dished a nifty backhand pass to his Omsk teammate. Fleury blocked the first shot by Calgary prospect, but failed to contain the rebound... Canada got back at even terms pretty fast. After P.A.Parenteau was denied on break-away by Medvedev, Lyubushin negligently cleared the puck right on Ian White's stick who fired a couple of shots from the point and the puck went in on the second - apparently tipped by Parenteau, albeit I thought it was Lyubushin's stick that slightly redirected this shot... In the remaining minutes prior to intermission Russia managed a couple of good scoring chances. Another spectacular rush by Zherdev was doomed by Alexei Kaigorodov who held on the puck for too long without making a play. Than with six seconds to go Alexander Polushin took a tricky wrist shot from the slot - Fleury prevailed. Canada managed a couple of point shots on a late PP, but Medvedev was up to the task.
On the side note for the opening two periods Canada was getting the puck deep into Russia's zone, but managed to squeeze anything from it only when the pairing of Mikhail Lyubushin and Maxim Kondratiev was on the ice. Other two (Fakhrutdinov and Ezhov sat the game) defensive units fared well, including outstanding Kirill Koltsov constantly cleaning up for the lapses of his partner Konstantin Korneev.
Early pressure from Ishmatov's team resolved in a good chance for Polushin and a glorious opportunity for Grigorenko. Togliatti forward blew by Colaiacovo and fooled Fleury heading around the net - a play a la Vsevlod Bobrov - unfortunately he failed to push the puck into a wide open cage loosing his balance for the last pair of steps... Canada answered with a spirited shift on part of P.M. Bouchard's unit. Parenteau, Laich and Minnesota draftee had good chances, but Medvedev was up to the task. That sequence was the last threatening one by Mark Habscheid's team at even strength. Moreover Canada produced just eight shots on goal during the remaining 37 minutes of action... The chess game begun from that standpoint, as both teams paid more attention on defensive zone coverage. Russians were the one to agitate, while Habscheid's boys were content to live up to their underdog status... A word on officiating - Swedish ref Ulf Radbjer did a poor job. He seemed to be uncomfortable in front of the noisy crowd and ignored a flurry of obvious calls. Although my Canadian colleagues didn't share the following point there's what I saw - midway trough the period the host team was beginning to lose physical battles alongside the boards. Unable to catch Russian forwards with legal hits for much of the second and the entire third period Canadian defenders were relentlessly cross-checking them with both hands on their sticks - non of those calls were made... Lack of discipline on part of Kaigorodov (crosschecked Laich into the net, while the play was stopped) helped Canada to go ahead on the ensuing PP. Upshall knocked the puck in on a rebound off Parenteau's shot. On the play Korneev failed to contain Canadian captain in front of the net. Prior to it though Russia missed two chances on PK. First Grigorenko stole the puck from Ian White and dangerously cut to the net. Than Koltsov missed the target with a screened wrister from the slot... Alexander Ovechkin had a good chance late in the period, but Fleury got his wrister with a red hot glove save.
For some reason I had a feeling that Russia will come back strong in the third period and get an equalizer early on. There was no panic and despair in their game, Russians continued to work diligently with cold blood, patently waiting for an opportunity. Trubachev's unit set the tune with a spirited shift that saw Fleury stopping another good shot from Ovechkin. The next shift was triumphant for Taratukhin's unit. Upshall failed to clean the zone, puck bounced on Koltsov stick he gave it to Perezhogin on the right side of the crease and Montreal draftee with a crisp one touch cross crease feed to Grigorenko set up the equalizer... Ishmatov significantly shortened his bench. Playing almost the entire period with his first two lines. Kaigorodov, Pestunov, Anshakov and Shishkanov took no more than a couple of shifts, while Zherdev and Artyukhin were benched. It seemed that Canada run out of fuel. Habscheid's boys lacked passion and seemed to duck in front of the powerful opponent... The winner came halfway trough the period. Ovechkin skated into the slot and took another dangerous shot which Fleury blocked. Trubachev picked the puck in the right corner and sent it to the point for Tyutin who dumped the puck back along the boards. Than came Polushin using his frame to skate around the net and within the slot (meantime Ovechkin did a fine job hanging on to his defenseman on the side of the crease) he softly pushed the puck on Trubachev's pallet. Team Captain picked an empty corner and sent Russia on their way to the World Championship... During the remaining nine minutes of play the panic reigned over Canadian kids. They couldn't generate a scoring opportunity, they could hardly get a shot on goal, they couldn't complete a pass. Meantime Ishmatov's boys remained calm and rock solid.
That's how Russian Juniors won the gold for the third time in the last five years in what was their fifth appearance in the final in a six year stretch.
During the post game celebration Nikolai Zherdev was one of the happiest guys on the ice. Quite weird for a guy who hardly had an opportunity to showcase his skills at the event and was labeled as a self centered enigma.
This has been my eleventh World Junior Championship and the level of competition hasn't been as inexistent (following the day one it was obvious that Russia and Canada are in different league than the rest of the clubs) since the mid 90th when Canada dominated the event.
Nova Scotia is a nice place and all that - but I would never go there again at this time of the year unless they pay me...
Finland won the bronze medal on Sunday afternoon defeating USA 3-2. Lou Vairo doomed his team for a loss starting James Howard in goal. Howard allowed two goals on ten shots before being replaced by Rob Goepfert. Finland took a comfy lead on goals from Jussi Jokinen, Jari Juntunen and Joni Pitkanen, but USA initialized a late come-back scoring twice in the closing five minutes of the game.
MY PERSONAL PAVEL BURE IMITATION
I thought that I was trough with knee injuries, or any kind of injuries, after hanging up the skates for good... apparently not. On the New Years eve following Russia's game versus Switzerland in Sydney I produced a spectacular slid down the stares while on the way to my car. Outcome: torn ACL and cartilage.
2003 WORLD JUNIOR CHAMPIONSHIP HEROES AND ZEROES
HEROES: Igor Grigorenko, Alexander Perezhogin, Yuri Trubachev, Kirill Koltsov, Andrei Medvedev, Fedor Tyutin, Dmitry Pestunov and the rest of team Russia along with head coach Rafail Ishmatov. Scotty Upshall, Marc-Andre Fleury, Kyle Wellwood, Joni Pitkanen, Tuomo Ruutu, Zach Parise, Rob Goepfert, Patrik Bartschi, Peter Sevela, Dmitry Patzold, Vadim Karaga, Jordin Tootoo - just for having enough guts to play the way he does.
ZEROES: The weather. Danny Kurman and Ulf Radbjer. Mark Habscheid for playing a unit of pluggers in the decisive closing minutes of the final. Jordin Tootoo and those who think he has any kind of scoring line potential. The hype over Tootoo. Those who selected Timofei Shishkanov and Evgeny Artyukhin for Team Russia before a few kids based in Russia who could have played within the team concept. Konstantin Korneev - inside the defensive zone. Tre Kronor team and the entire Sweden's youth program. Marcel Goc. James Howard. Internet coffee shop in Sydney. Erkka Westlund for screwing his players inside 4-1 system. My personal Pavel Bure imitation.
-- Max Dostoevsky