UFA, Russia — Team Canada head coach Steve Spott ended his post-game conference with Russian media by wishing them a “Happy New Year” in their native tongue.
As far as the man sitting beside him on the dais, Russian head coach Mikhail Varnakov, was concerned there was nothing happy about it. His team had just lost 4-1 on home ice to Canada on one the biggest days on the Russian calendar.
“To play against a team like Canada is always hard,” said Varnakov through a translator. “You should always be alert and you should always be disciplined.”
Thus far in the tournament, it has been Team Canada that has struggled with taking penalties. This time however, it was the Russians that found themselves in the box early in the first period when Valeri Nichushkin was given a five-minute major for checking from behind and a game misconduct for slamming defenceman Tyler Worthersoon face-first into the dasher board. Adding injury to injury, it was his first shift back for the Calgary Flames prospect after he had taken a skate in the cheek minutes earlier. It wasn’t until his face hit the boards that the gash to his right cheek opened up, sending him to the dressing room.
“It was like getting punched in the face,” said Wortherspoon, who took six stitches inside and outside his cheek. “I didn’t even know it was that bad until I got to the bench and then I actually got to the dressing room.
“It’s all numb right now. It’ll hurt more tomorrow morning.”
While he was in the doctor’s room getting sewn-up someone was relaying details to him, like when defenceman Dougie Hamilton opened the scoring with a blast from the point on the power play. That news was followed by a Mark Scheifele goal more than a minute later to put Canada well on the way to victory. That penalty was the turning point of the game.
“That first penalty,” said Varnakov. “That was a bad call, the game misconduct.”
As the cheerleaders danced around and Russian fans wore their finest Santa Clause garb – hats, beards and long robes – to ring in the New Year, there wasn’t much for them to celebrate at Ufa Arena.
“When we came out for the start of the first period, the atmosphere in this building was unbelievable,” said Spott. “The fans were electric, the building was loud and it really was a special feeling for all of our players and coaches to come out to a building like that – it was fantastic.”
Once the game was over, the Russian players stood on the blueline, many with their heads bowed. That didn’t deter many of the 7,988 fans that packed the rink to continue chanting, “Russia! Russia!” despite the loss.
This was supposed to be Russia’s time to shine, finally playing on home ice. Instead, it was 17-year-old Canadian star Jonathan Drouin who stole the show. Spott put Drouin on the top line alongside veterans Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Mark Sheifele. He found out when he walked into the dressing room and saw his name written on the board alongside the two NHL first-round picks. “I was really pumped for the game when I saw the lines,” said Drouin. “I thought ‘Spott has a lot of confidence in me,’ when I saw it … it was great to play with [Nugent-Hopkins].”
The youngster, who jumped to the QMJHL’s Halifax Mooseheasds last Christmas from playing midget, scored on a beautiful wraparound to put Canada up 3-1.
“It was a pretty slick move,” said Nugent-Hopkins of the goal. “You’ve got to be pretty smart to be able to do that.”
Even with an NHL season under his belt, the Edmonton Oilers star was surprised by Drouin’s poise.
“He doesn’t play like [he’s 17], for sure,” said Nugent-Hopkins. “He’s so dynamic, it’s hard to believe that he’s only 17. He’s handled himself really well.”
Spott said his reasoning for the move was to create more speed on that line. He said he would speak with Nugent-Hopkins and Scheifele to get their thoughts on whether they felt the move worked and whether they should go with it next game as well.
“Ultimately it’s about winning,” said Spott. “And that’s the most important thing.”
And speaking of winning, Canada finished the round robin undefeated at 4-0. They’ll have a few days of rest before advancing to Thursday’s semifinal. Canada will play the winner of the U.S -Czech Republic quarter-final game on Wednesday. Russia will now have to play Switzerland in the second quarter-final game on Wednesday. So if Russia intends to bring gold home to Ufa, they’ll have to do it the hard way.
“The most important is to play disciplined,” said Varnakov through a translator. “They didn’t let us play our game or to use our strength.
“Canadians are Canadians and we can’t deny them.”