CALGARY — It wasn’t supposed to end like this for Team Canada. This was supposed to be their comeback to rival that of the Russian squad from 2011, the team that stole gold and gave them silver at the World Junior Hockey Championship.
This was their great comeback – rallying from a five-goal third-period deficit – ever so close, but still on the losing end of a 6-5 score to Russia in the semifinal Tuesday night. And as much as Team Canada wanted to change the narrative, this was supposed to be about retribution.
In end, the scene was all too familiar for returning forward Brett Connolly, having suffered through his second crushing defeat in 12 months at the hands of the Russians.
What’s it like in the dressing room?
“Quiet,” he said.
Lots of red eyes?
"It sucks," said Connolly, whose memory was crystal clear when it came to Russia’s five-goal outburst in the third period of the 2011 tournament finale. "Last year it happened in the gold-medal game, and this year in the semifinals. We were that close to tying it up, even though we didn’t play that well early.
The Canadians came out with lots of energy and despite some excellent chances in the first period couldn’t solve Russian goalie Andrei Vasilevski. After the first few minutes it looked like Canada became tentative when they weren’t getting the bounces despite the early effort. Russia seemed to feed off of that and opened up a quick two-goal lead before Connolly put Canada on the board in the second.
“I didn’t think we got off to the start that we wanted,” said head coach Don Hay. “We’ve had good starts all through the tournament and to get down 2-0 in the first period and then we made it 2-1 and I thought we were getting back in the game, but we gave up a couple easy goals… we have to be better early and we weren’t.”
Canada seemed to come unglued when Russian forward Alex Khokhlachev went crashing into starting goaltender Scott Wedgewood just after Russian captain Yevgeni Kuznetsov had scored his third goal at 8:48 of the second period. Wedgewood was shaken up on the play and left the game.
"He blindsided me after that goal," said the New Jersey Devils prospect. "[My] lower back and neck just kind of gave out."
Mark Visentin, who was the goaltender in net for the Russian comeback last year, came in as his replacement. But what really proved Team Canada’s undoing was the parade of dumb penalties. The most blatant example of composure going AWOL in the period was Boone Jenner’s five-minute major and game misconduct for spearing Ildar Isangulov after the Russian was being penalized for hitting Jenner with an elbow to the head. Minutes later it was Jonathan Huberdeau who was assessed a slashing penalty. Instead of skating straight to the box, the Florida Panthers prospect took his stick and slammed it against the boards to earn an additional 10-minute misconduct.
"That’s hockey," said Huberdeau after the game. "But I shouldn’t have taken my 10 minutes [misconduct]. It’s a selfish play, and it’s not the referee. I deserved it.”
Instead of packing it in, Canada regrouped during the intermission and came out guns blazing in the third period. The four-goal outburst whipped a full house at the Saddledome into a frenzy and prompted Russian coach Valeri Bragin to pull Vasilevski and send in Andrei Makarov for the final five minutes of the game. Makarov, who plays for the Saskatoon Blades of the Western Hockey League, was outstanding as Canada pushed hard for the equalizer.
“The belief was there in the second intermission,” Visentin said. “Our leaders did a good job of making sure we weren’t giving up in there. Look at how we came out, we were all over them. We scored, what, four goals in the third? That’s a lot to ask for out of a hockey team and we did a great job of coming back.
“We were just one short.”
It’s the first time in 10 years that Canada will not be playing for gold in a country where anything less from their teenage players is often seen as an abject failure.
“It’s an honour to win a medal when you’re at this competition no matter what medal it is,” Hay said. “Our guys respect the fans and respect each other and I expect them to play hard for each other.”
Canada will now play Finland for the bronze medal on Thursday afternoon, while Russia will face Sweden in the gold-medal match later in the evening.
"That’s not the reason we came here,” said Canada’s captain Jaden Schwartz. “We came here to win a gold medal, but we’ve got to get up for the [bronze-medal] game as much as we can and make sure we win that game.”
In the dying seconds of the game, with Canada pressing, the capacity crowd decked out in red and white were on the edges of their seats. They jumped and gasped when Ryan Strome’s shot hit nothing but post – once again ever so close – before the final buzzer rang.
“I don’t think we needed any more time,” said defenceman Dougie Hamilton. “The goalie stood on his head and we hit a post. I think we could have had 10 goals in the last 10 minutes.
“That’s just the way it goes sometimes.”