Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Kerrzy's Notebook: Five Unanswered?!

Wow, I didn't see that coming...

After the first two periods of Wednesday's World Junior Hockey Championship gold medal game it looked like it was going to be Canada's night, but as Ryan Ellis and company found out...looks can be deceiving!

A fired up Russian squad scored three times in five minutes to tie the game near the start of the third period, including two goals that came just eleven seconds apart. They put the game away with two more in the closing five, virtually stealing the title out of the hands of the waiting Canadians and stunning the thousands of fans in attendance.

Who would have thought that Canada, coming off a huge win over the United States and playing in a tenth straight final, would fall to pieces like that?

As I write this, hours after the final whistle, I'm still shocked by what I saw! Canada seemed to have it in the bag after two relatively dominant periods and then just fell flat. So what happened out there?

If you've been following the tournament up to this point, you probably know all about the transformation that this Russian team has undergone in the past couple of weeks: things looked bleak after an 0-2 start (losses to Canada and Sweden), they gained some confidence by working over two lesser nations and then came the knockout round.

Russia stormed back from down 3-1 to beat Finland in the quarterfinals, before blowing a two-goal lead in the semifinals against Sweden, tying the game late in the third period and winning in a shootout. Taking that into consideration, should we be surprised that they came back once again?

I have to say I am a bit surprised, because when Brayden Schenn scored to make it 3-0 I finally felt pretty safe...looking back though, maybe they did too.

Obviously you play with a different tenacity when you're losing going into the final period than you do when you're up by three, but I certainly didn't expect Canada to fall apart like they did. Russian head coach Valeri Bragin must have delivered one hell of a speech to his team during the second intermission because they played to win right from the start of that final period.

In retrospect, I wonder if Canada should have made a goaltending change after that third goal went in - Mark Visentin stopped 17 shots in the first two periods and then let in five goals on 10 shots the rest of the way. At the other end of the ice, Russia pulled Dmitri Shikin after Canada's third goal and Igor Bobkov came in and gave the team a lift with 20 saves in relief.

I can't help but think about what a similar move might have done for Canada. That said, I'm not putting the blame on Visentin's shoulders - I'm just saying that taking him out of the game after the 3-3 goal might have been the wake up call the team needed at that point. Coaches do it all the time, and players usually respond by regaining their focus and playing a little bit harder.

It feels like I watched two different games on Wednesday night: the dominant Canadian performance that I expected to see when I turned on the TV, and a colossal implosion that feels like it happened in an alternate universe somewhere!

The first half of the game had all the makings of a legendary win for Canada with Brayden Schenn equalling a 34-year-old national team record with his 18th point of the tournament (also tying Jordan Eberle for second on the all-time points list with 26). That was after Ryan Ellis, who became just the fourth Canadian to win three medals, scored his third goal and 10th point of the tournament, giving him 25 career WJHC points.

Then it all came crashing down.

Artemi Panarin and Maxim Kitsyn scored goals 11 seconds apart in the first three minutes of the third period. Vladimir Tarasenko tied the game five minutes later. Panarin put Russia up by a goal with less than 5 minutes to play. Nikita Dvurechenski put the nail in the coffin with 1:16 to go and that was all she wrote.

Once the tide started to turn, it looked like Canada simply drowned in the wave of momentum going the other way and weren't able to get their heads above water. They looked lost, they looked like they couldn't remember what they did to be successful in the first two periods, and after Russia tied the game - they looked defeated.

In the end, they were defeated as the Russians claimed their first gold medal since 2003. We should be proud of our boys though; they came up short in the end but they still put together a solid tournament and really they were unlucky when it came down to closing things out in the third.

On a brighter note, Brayden Schenn was named the tournament MVP and the top forward, Ryan Ellis was the top defenceman and both players, along with Ryan Johansen, made the tournament All-Star team. I suppose at the end of the day, two silver medals are better than two bronze medals or none at all, but it still stings...

The question now is, will they regroup and get their revenge next year in Calgary?

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