Undefeated Canada holds off Russia to win gold
But oh, how it came so close to tic-tac-blow for the Canadian junior team on Monday night at the Air Canada Centre.
The Canadians saw a four-goal lead nearly evaporate in the second period, but with the fans in a packed house alternating between cheering them on and biting their nails, the home team held on for a wildly entertaining 5-4 victory.
In doing so, Canada ended its five-year gold drought at the World Junior Championship.
The 2015 tournament ended with Canada as gold-medal champs, the first time on top of the under-20 world since the late Pat Quinn guided the team in 2009.
“I am Canadian and it is all about this, the gold medal,” captain Curtis Lazar said.
“What a feeling. To end the streak, it is big. And finally, we can call this game ours. What a way to do it.”
Canada was cruising — or appeared to be — with a 5-1 lead past the midway mark of the second period when Sam Reinhart deflected a Max Domi shot past Russian goalie Ilya Sorokin.
But the Russians, inconsistent in the preliminary round but much sharper as it advanced to the championship game, reeled off three goals in a span of 3:16 to close the gap to one goal.
There was no panic.
Coach Benoit Groulx called a timeout and pulled out his now-famous rallying cry. The Russians didn’t score again.
“Tic-tac-tao,” Lazar said. “I looked at Connor McDavid on the bench and the smile on his face was huge. I knew we were going to be alright.”
Goalie Zach Fucale took over in the final 20 minutes, stopping all 11 Russian shots he saw. His teammates had just four on Sorokin in the period.
This Canadian team — built on the successful Olympic model that had star players adjusting to different roles in Sochi last winter — sailed through its first six games in the tournament, scoring 34 goals and allowing just five.
Russia easily was its toughest opponent.
In winning, Canada has drawn even with its old rival in the gold-medal game, as the teams have met eight times in the ultimate game with each emerging as the victor four times.
The triumph was a tad more sweet for the seven Canadians — Fucale, Josh Morrissey, Nic Petan, Lazar, Frederik Gauthier, Reinhart and McDavid — who were on the team that finished fourth last year in Malmo, Sweden.
“For me being in the program last year, it was a huge disappointment not winning gold,” Morrissey said. “When we were able to win and that clock struck zero, the weight was off our shoulders.
“There were some tense moments. It was one of the more crazy games I’ve ever been a part of. I guess that’s junior hockey, that’s why it is so exciting. We were able to just calm down.”
During the second intermission, the players reminded themselves that having a one-goal lead over Russia heading into the third period of the gold-medal game was something they would have taken.
Canada got goals from Anthony Duclair, Nick Paul, McDavid, Domi and Reinhart.
Canada was as deep as any team in recent world junior memory and got the final piece it needed when the Ottawa Senators loaned Lazar. He joined Duclair, coming from the New York Rangers, as Canada’s NHL talent.
Canada had a 2-0 lead early in the first period, sending the crowd of 19,014 into a frenzy. The hungry start chased Russian goalie Igor Shestyorkin as the first two shots beat him.
Russia scored late in the first, but Canada got three more in the second, including a beautiful goal by McDavid, who hollered for a pass and was sent in on a breakaway by Morrissey.
It was a nice finish for McDavid, who recovered just fine, thanks, from a broken bone in his right hand.
What would the projected first pick overall in the 2015 NHL draft and future franchise player remember about the day?
“Everything,” McDavid said.
“From breakfast to now, it has been a crazy day. The crowd was unbelievable, and to be able to sing the national anthem with the crowd, it is just hard to explain.”
TERRIFIC TOP PAIRING
So, Darnell Nurse, is that the best hockey you have played in your life?
“Yeah, definitely to this point, this is the most consistent I have played,” Nurse said. “But with that said, we had a great team. And (defence partner) Shea (Theodore) was out there making unbelievable plays.”
Nurse, the Edmonton Oilers prospect who stars for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League, couldn’t even garner an invitation to Canada’s selection camp last year.
This year, he not only was a part of a terrific blue line at the 2015 world junior, but formed the top pair with Theodore.
Neither of them was on the ice for an even-strength goal-against in the tournament. Nurse had just one assist in the event but was plus-8, while Theodore was plus-12.
Nurse, Max Domi and Sam Reinhart were named Canada’s top three players in the tournament as Canada won gold for the first time since 2009.