BUFFALO – Team Canada stood there, on their own blue line, stunned.
One-by-one their Russian rivals were crossing over that same line invading the Canadian end to celebrate their golden moment – an improbable 5-3 come-from-behind victory in the final of the World Junior Championship – with a handful of Russian fans that had made their way to ice level.
“I can’t believe it happened,” Canadian goaltender Mark Visentin said. “It’s really tough standing out there watching them celebrate.”
The same players who spent the last 11 days answering questions in scrums from dozens of international reporters on a daily basis -- most of time more than once a day -- were left speechless, many staring blankly, eyes glazed over like automatons.
“I’m just in shock right now,” Canadian defenceman Calvin de Haan said. “I don’t know, really, what to say. I’m at a loss for words.
“It’s so disappointing. Sorry I’m at a loss for words right now. I can’t -- I don’t know what to say.”
And, in fairness, there were no words that could have done justice to how devastated Canada’s junior side was after the game, because they had taken a 3-0 lead into the third period only to sit back and watch the Russians score five unanswered goals to steal victory.
In less than 20 minutes Canada had let their gold fade to silver.
“I think we just played a full 40 and hockey has 60 minutes,” captain Ryan Ellis said. “It’s our fault. We had the game in our hands and we let it slide.”
In the mixed zone after the final, the revelling Russians were on one end of the slightly raised platform, while the Canadians were on the other. During one portion of scrum with reporters interviewing Canadian forwards Louis Leblanc, Brayden Schenn and Zack Kassian, the Russians -- led by goal scorers Vladimir Tarasenko and Artemi Panarin -- started chanting “Champion Russia” for the benefit for TV cameras rolling video back to the Motherland.
“This is the worst feeling ever,” Kassian said through the shouts. “It sucks.”
The same scene was replayed later in the night back at the hotel the Russian team, along with a large Canadian contingent, were staying. Walking out of the elevator was smiling forward Daniil Sobchenko still wearing his Russian jersey, championship hat and gold medal hanging from his neck. He was greeted by cheers as he joined a small party of team officials, players, family and friends at the hotel lounge before the entire group hoisted their drinks and broke out into chants of “RUSS-I-A! RUSS-I-A!”
The same bar had served boisterous Canadian fans throughout the week, was now helping a large contingent of quiet ones drown their sorrows.
“Good for (expletive) them,” said one patron, clearly unimpressed with the celebration.
It might have come off much like sour grapes, but after losing 6-5 to the Americans in overtime at last year’s championship in Saskatoon, Sask., many Canadians were hoping for a little golden redemption. Hopes were buoyed even further when Team Canada exacted revenge by thoroughly outplaying the U.S. in a 4-1 victory -- sending the Canadians to their tenth straight world junior final and the home side to an eventual bronze medal. No one wanted it more than the four returning players -- forward Brayden Schenn and defencemen Jared Cowen, Ellis and de Haan -- who had already tasted bitter silver once before.
“Last year it was just a bang goal and it was in (the net),” Schenn said of the loss in 2010. “This one you kind of see it slipping away, slowly, slowly -- it was one of the toughest periods of hockey I’ve ever played. It’s so disappointing it’s almost hard to believe right now.”
“It’s probably 10 times worse,” Ellis said of comparing the losses.
“It’s a thousand times worse,” de Haan added.
Worse because they allowed Russia two quick goals to start the third period with Panarin and Maxim Kitsyn scoring 13 seconds apart on Visentin to cut the deficit to a single goal. At that point, most of the energy from 18,690 fans at HSBC Arena -- most of whom were Canadian -- turned to anxiety. By time Taraskeno, the Russian captain, had scored it had already become a full-scale panic. Panarin’s final dagger, his second of the game, sent fans to an early exit to debate what many were already calling the greatest collapse in world junior history.
“I don’t think we won a sliver medal,” said Visentin. “I think we lost gold... it’s a brutal feeling losing, but at the same time I’m proud of what we battled through. I don’t think a lot of people even saw us even making it to the gold medal game this year.”
Not that it was any consolation for Ellis.
The Nashville Predators draft pick, who also won gold with Team Canada in 2009, was so dejected that when he was presented with the medal he held it in his hand and skated back to the blue line, while the rest of his teammates wore theirs around their necks. Eventually he put it on display when he skated to accept his award as the tournament’s best defenceman alongside Schenn, who was named tournament MVP.
“It’s tough, you let your fans down and you let your country down,” Ellis said after his final world junior appearance. “But life goes on.”