A Long History...
Yet another installment of the true international hockey rivalry is set for Buffalo, New York tomorrow night when Russia takes on Team Canada in the gold medal game.
I've been a fan of the rivalry since 1972, a mere 38 years ago, when I stood in the hallway at Georges Vanier Elementary School in Saskatoon and watched the final game of the Super Series with my classmates. There have been many great sporting moments supplied by these two hockey powers over the years, at both the professional and amateur level. (Of course, some may want to debate where amateurs and professionals fit in the grand scheme of things, but that's another conversation entirely.)
Tomorrow, the teams will face off in front of a wildly pro-Canadian crowd at HSBC Arena. The officiating crew has been named. It includes a Czech and American referee along with a German and American linesman. Is this relevant? Probably not, but Canada/Russia hockey history shows there was a time when it might have mattered.
Team Canada has proven itself to be a forechecking monster at this WJC, with its only blemish being a preliminary round shootout loss to Sweden. The Russians lost their first two preliminary round games, to Canada and to Sweden, and have won four straight since. Subsequently, the 2011 gold medal winning team will not sport an undefeated record.
While I am wholeheartedly cheering for Team Canada, I have had some experience of late with this current group from Russia. And I believe there is reason for some trepidation as Canada looks to reclaim the tournament championship it lost at this event last year.
The 2010 Subway Super Series...
When the Russians journeyed through British Columbia last November for a two-game set against Team WHL in the annual Subway Super Series, the team had already won a pair of games against the QMJHL. They lost both games to the OHL, although the first decision required a shootout. Team WHL was charged with having to win both games to secure the series victory, something that had become a foregone conclusion over the past seven editions of the competition.
In Kamloops, I watched the Russians practice during the morning on gameday. They were loose as a group and it was evident the coaching staff was comfortable with the players enjoying themselves. They worked diligently on offensive zone attack drills and specialty team positioning. I was especially interested in how they worked to to keep pucks in at the blueline and how quickly the Russian defensemen were getting accurate shots off from the point.
That night, when Team WHL scored three times during the first eight minutes of the game, I could see and hear the collective smirks from the crowd at the Interior Savings Centre. Pandamonium of sorts, actually. Indeed, it was another blowout in the making, wasn't it?
Well, the Russians certainly didn't see it that way. Before long, the gap was narrowed to 3-2. And then, with just ten minutes to play, Team WHL was in front by a count of 6-3. It appeared that all was good at the ISC. But again, the Russians didn't cooperate. They struck for three quick goals to tie the game, 6-6, and could very likely have won in regulation time. The series rules of competition did not allow for overtime, so the teams went straight to the shootout. Five shots each and the Russians didn't have to use their last shooter. Game over. Russia 7, Team WHL 6.
Had Team WHL won in that fashion, I suspect we'd have been told by the media hordes that the victory was a "character builder", testimony to the heart and soul of Canadian hockey players.
The next night, the Russians walked into the CN Centre in Prince George and defeated Team WHL by a score of 5-2, winning the Subway Super Series for the first time. Methinks many hockey fans may have forgotten this result.
The 2011 WJC Playoff Round...
There was something eerily familiar about the Russians' win over Finland. They overcame a two-goal deficit, scoring twice in the final four minutes before winning in overtime by a 4-3 count. A "character builder" perhaps?
And then against Sweden, they gave up a two-goal lead, only to battle back and score late to tie the game at 3-3. It was as if overtime was academic, the Russia prevailed in the shootout. Again, a "character builder" perhaps?
The 2011 WJC Final...
When the puck is dropped at the WJC tomorrow, no less than 15 players from that successful Russian side will be in uniform in Buffalo. The team that ripped through British Columbia in November showed determination, grit, skill and persistence. At Kamloops, they stole victory from the jaws of defeat, overcoming a pair of three-goal deficits. A "character builder", perhaps?
In addition to the group that was successful in dispatching Team WHL, the Russians have added three difference makers in defenceman Dmitri Orlov, along with forwards Vladamir Tarasenko and Yevgeni Kuznetsov.
What scares me about the gold medal game is this Russian team appears to really believe in itself. There is emotion and fight that I generally haven't seen in the past. There always has been high-end skill among the Russians, but seldom has it appeared to me that the teams are having fun pulling together.
There is absolutely no way the Canadians will under-estimate the Russians. There will be pressure, of course, but the coaching staff has demonstrated its ability to plan their work and then work their plan. The players are a hard-working bunch, tenacious on the forecheck. They have been as disciplined a Canadian team as we have seen at a WJC in some time.
There has been a consistent WHL flavour with this current group as well. And therein may lie the ultimate advantage.
During that Subway Super Series loss in November at Kamloops, Jared Cowen, Curtis Hamilton, Quinton Howden and Carter Ashton were in the lineup for Team WHL. Cody Eakin, Ryan Johansen and Tyson Barrie were in the building, but did not dress. The trio suited up, along with Brett Connolly, the next night in Prince George. That's eight WHLers who felt the sting from this current Russian group.
And I just don't see it happening again.
Go Canada Go!