Unbelievable comeback. As my stomach was in knots seeing the collapse unfold, I couldn't help but steal a lot of admiration for what the Russian kids had just done. Three straight wins, all involving late game heroics, in order to win their first gold medal at the WJC since 2003. People assumed that when the gold came back across the ocean, it would be Sweden that would've done it. Sweden went from an undefeated preliminary round to losing two straight and finishing 4th.
And yes, I called it. Russia over Canada was my bold prediction back when I was doing the team previews. It was clearly just a hunch pick at best, but really I made the pick because no one seemed willing to pay much attention to the Russians at all. I figured they were as good of a pick as any in a year where no one seemed to be giving an accurate pre-tournament picture of the whole event. Canada was apparently a massive underdog bereft of actual talent, while the Americans were world beaters because they were returning all their support players from the previous year and had a good goalie. Sweden was formidable, but looked a lot worse on paper than they did the previous year heading into the tournament.
Then there was Russia, under a new coach who managed to accomplish something no one before him had ever done: win the Subway Super Series vs. Canada. In naming his squad, Valeri Bragin kept a lot of those same players, who played a similar game in that series against CHL All-Star teams. Look at the Super Series roster, and you'll see a lot of names you might recognize from this team: Bocharov, Burdasov, Golubev, Kalinin, Kitsyn, Panarin, Sobchenko, Voronin, Berezin, Berdyukov, Sergeev, Urychev, and Shikin. They played a classic counterstrike style, seemingly unphased by any situation put in front of them. Throw in a couple of bonfaide superstars in Vladimir Tarasenko, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Dmitri Orlov and you really did have a complete team, ready to take on any nation. Were they the best nation? Well, they beat all the best nations at least once (aside from the USA) en route to gold, so I don't think we can fault the tournament format for this one. They played probably the best period of hockey you'll ever see, and they won it without Canada getting into penalty trouble, which many predicted could be their downfall.
There were some unforutnate situations for Canada. Breakouts were stymied by poor ice conditions along the boards. Canada had built their entire game around boardplay, and that ended up hurting them in the third period of a tournament where the ice had been through the wringer, seeing way too many games for its own good. It directly led to one of the Russian goals.
I'm not sure if this Russian win is the junior hockey equivelant of the Czech Republic's win at this year's World Championships, whether its more a fluke occurence rather than an indication of any strength. I'm inclined to believe while this win was a little unlikely, it does show that Russia is still a major player in producing quality young hockey players. We're in the second year of the new junior league (it's actually an U22 league), roughly translated as the Minor Hockey League (MHL). The Russians have more players than ever before playing in the CHL, but they didn't use them, as only goalie Igor Bobkov made the cut from that group. Top players weren't even invited, such as Kirill Kabanov and Alexander Avtsin, while Stanislav Galiev and OHL rookie phenom Nail Yakupov were cut at camp. Was it a political decision? Probably not, Bragin liked the core of his team from the Subway Super Series and decided to build around them.
This wasn't the most talented team, but it was talented enough. Some of these players may go on to have very unmemorable professional careers, but they were the right group for the right time. Bragin was able to confidently roll all four lines even against the best junior teams on the planet, and those players responded to his belief in them by pulling off some amazing performances. I'm not even sure if the gold medal win was more remarkable than the quarterfinal win over Finland.
And hey, now Canada has something new to motivate them for next year. But two goals in 11 seconds... that'll knock anyone off even the best game plan. (Side note: Why was Dylan Olsen out there at all? He had been Canada's least effective blueliner all tournament.) Canada will win gold again, and likely soon, but this is a silver that for once, they probably should feel down about.
Full disclosure: I will do a "Champions Series" piece on Team Russia U20, but this isn't it.