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Wild Finishes, Emotional Surges, Flubs, Improbability, and Hat Tricks

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The title only gives you a taste of went on last night at the IIHF World Juniors. Canada is out, falling by the historically prescient score of 6-5 to Russia, nearly completing a comeback from a 5 goal deficit in just over ten minutes. Sweden, too, came back on Tuesday, overcoming a 2-0 third period deficit to win 3-2 in a shootout over Finland. The two best teenaged hockey players not in the NHL, Yegveni Kuznetsov of Russia and Mikael Granlund of Finland, each had defining moments in their games, for entirely different reasons. The two semifinals had completely different standards of officiating, with Sweden-Finland becoming a 'let 'em play' game with tons of infractions let go, while Canada-Russia saw a ton of penalties called both ways, including an ejection and a 10 minute misconduct called. We saw goaltending ranging from spectacular to horrendous. We had own goals, flubs, clean breaks caused by bad line changes, and errors galore.

This is junior hockey at its elite level. It's not the best hockey that can be played, but at it's best it can offer up the most excitement you'll see on a rink.

Yevgeni Kuznetsov had a hat trick and an assist to help Russia build a 6-1 lead in what looked like a thoroughly embarassing Canadian defeat on home ice, the kind of score Canada is used to putting up against their stunned opponents before a raucous crowd. Then, the goals came in bunches for the home side. A PP goal by Dougie Hamilton, the first against Russia's PK unit in the tournament, followed quickly by a bank-in off a defender from behind the net, followed by a double deflection, followed by another PP goal from a Canadian defenseman. Suddenly, young 17 year old Andrei Vasilevskiy went from the tournament darling to benched for the final five and a half minutes of play... for Andrei Makarov.

It's a goaltending strategy seemingly borrowed from baseball pitching management: Makarov was the closer, trying to preserve Vasilievskiy's lead when it seemed like he had run out of gas. Apparently Vasilievskiy's 'shot count' must've been stretched past 40, as he went from allowing 1 goal on 40 or so shots to allowing 5 on 49 shots. Makarov came in for a 7 shot save effort and Russia is in the final, a Ryan Strome goalpost being the closest Canada got (and that's awfully close).

Neither coach could take much credit for this one. Valeri Bragin did all he could to keep his team from defeating itself, while Don Hay seemed reluctant to try new talent until the very end, and still didn't use NHL forward Brett Connolly to a great degree even while behind. It was captain Jaden Schwartz's line that did the most damage for Canada, with Brendan Gallagher providing an inspired performance late to nearly rally the troops. With Jonathan Huberdeau out for the majority of the third period with a ten minute misconduct, and Boone Jenner tossed from the game after an incredibly stupid spear on Kuznetsov, Hay didn't have many options, but he still was slow to adjust. Bragin juggled his lines furiously in the end, and trusted the obviously injured Mikhail Grigorenko a lot in this game. Grigorenko did set up the winning goal on what was a nice rush by Ignat Zemchenko finished off by Nikita Kucherov.

While Vasilevskiy was brilliant as the Russians built the lead, Canada again was not able to count on a brilliant goaltending performance of their own. Scott Wedgewood was victimized three times by Kuznetsov, and three times by his own defencemen, Ryan Murray. Murray started poorly, giving the puck away and then making a foolish defensive dive that caused the first Russian goal, and then was caught with his stick in a bad position for a re-direct on Nikita Nesterov's PP goal to give Russia a 2-0 first period lead. The poor decisions were then replaced by bad luck later... Murray again inadvertently deflected a Kuznetsov shot into the top corner, couldn't catch up on the blown line change on Kuznetsov's hat trick goal, and then had a centering pass deflect off his skates right to Alexander Khokhlachev on the 5-1 goal. The potential top 5 2012 draft pick has probably not ever had a worse night, and he still only ended up a -1 on the evening, as he was also on the ice for 3 goals for.

In the other semifinal, a 2-0 Finland lead was built on turnovers and advantageous offence, but Sweden was in control of the game for the most part. Still, it took a Sami Aittokallio giveaway from behind his own net to tie the game up, and a shootout to win it. The shootout ended when star forward Mikael Granlund lost the puck while attempted a toe drag move... and for those who have seen Granlund's shootout heroics in the past, it was a stunning conclusion. Sweden had a tough time getting to rebounds and creating traffic in front of Aittokallio, but in the end, they were the better team and deserved to be in the gold medal game.

For the first time in 11 years, Canada will not be in the gold medal game of the IIHF U20 World Junior Championship. Instead, the folks of Calgary will be treated to an all European matchup, and I hope they enjoy the game and show a lot of enthusiasm. Nothing is guaranteed in this sport, and while Canada has the depth of talent to overcome most of the random effects of birth year variance and dumb luck, every once in a while it should catch up. I doubt we'll see Canada go ten straight years in the Finals anytime soon, to be honest. It was a heck of a run, but the team still has a shot at medalling for the 13th straight year against Finland on Thursday.

Sweden, meanwhile, look like the better team of the two remaining in the Final. Maybe 2012 will finally be the year that ends the most unbelievable 31 year championship drought.... although you can never count out Russia, just as you couldn't even count out Canada when down by five goals with just over half a period to play.

What an event.