QUEBEC – It wasn’t supposed to end like this.
The ice at Le Colisee Pepsi was covered with a sea of red gloves and helmets and not one of them belonged to a Canadian player. Instead, you had Alex Ovechkin skating around kissing his new gold medal over and over while Ilya Kovalchuk grabbed a television camera and screamed into it.
The Russians got the sweetest revenge possible at the IIHF World Hockey Championship.
A year earlier, O Canada was played at Khodynka Arena in Moscow. This time it was the Russians who sang their national anthem on Canadian soil.
“Right now we are the champions of the world and it feels so great,” said Ovechkin. “It’s really special to win here because this is hockey and it’s a hockey-mad country.
“It just feels wonderful. It feels so great.”
All those good feelings came off Kovalchuk’s stick. He scored the goal that tied the game in the third period and came through with the overtime winner as Russia beat Canada 5-4 in a tense game that lived up to its advance billing.
The Canadians were 20 minutes from becoming the first host country to win the world championship since the Soviet Union in 1986. They held a 4-2 lead heading into the third period but started to get tentative as the Russians gained more control of the puck.
“We really sat back in the second half (of the game),” said Nash. “You have a two-goal lead in the gold medal game going into the third period – we had to play better.”
You have to feel especially sorry for him. He led Canada to gold at last year’s world championship but had the worst seat in the house for Kovalchuk’s winner.
Nash had been sent to the penalty box after accidentally sending the puck over the glass from his own end just 1:51 into the extra period. The Russians sent out four forwards for the 4-on-3 advantage and Kovalchuk beat Canadian goalie Cam Ward with a wrist shot at 2:42.
That clinched the country’s first gold medal in 15 years and touched off an exuberant celebration that lasted well into the night – on both sides of the Atlantic.
“God was on our side a little more than them,” said Kovalchuk. “In overtime, they take that penalty – that’s the new rules. I don’t know if it’s good or it’s bad but it worked for us.”
It capped an unusual tournament for him. Kovalchuk was twice ejected from games and suspended for another, and hadn’t scored at all before getting the two most important goals of the entire event.
Meanwhile, the Canadian team had steamrolled its way through its opening eight games but had yet to face an opponent as good as the Russians. Those two teams were unquestionably the best ones here and either could have won the gold medal on Sunday.
The loss brought an end to a 17-game winning streak for Canada dating back to last year.
“Team Canada’s won a ton of these and you’re going to lose once and awhile,” said captain Shane Doan. “Unfortunately, it was tonight. That’s the way it goes.
“We’ve won I don’t know how many in a row. It’s tough to keep winning that many in a row.”
Alexander Semin, with two, and Alexei Tereshchenko also scored for Russia.
Brent Burns had two goals for Canada while Dany Heatley and Chris Kunitz each added one. Heatley also had an assist to cap the best tournament ever by a Canadian player in the 31 years this country has been sending NHLers to this event.
He finished with 20 points and was named the tournament’s MVP, its best forward and was included on the all-star team along with Nash and defenceman Mike Green.
Those honours will do little to soothe the pain of this loss. These players all gave up a month of their off-season to wear the Maple Leaf on home soil and every one of them believed they’d be going home with a gold medal.
“Nobody on this team came here to win silver,” said Ward. “It’s tough right not because you do feel like you’ve let your country down. There will be other tournaments, there will be more to come. We’ve got to keep our head up high.
“We have an excellent program.”
This tournament often has trouble capturing the attention of Canadian fans but it would be nearly impossible for anyone who loves hockey not to enjoy this game. Eight of the top 20 NHL scorers were on the ice and it felt like a goal could be scored at any moment.
Fans wearing Canadian jerseys packed Le Colisee Pepsi and the sellout crowd of 13,338 roared as the game began. Prime Minister Stephen Harper sat three rows behind the home team’s bench and lent his support too.
But it was the Russians that struck first with a goal that demonstrated just how dangerous they can be. Ovechkin found Semin in the slot and he put it past Ward before the Canadian goalie could even react. It was 1-0 just 1:23 into the game.
The Canadians soon responded with Burns scoring twice and Kunitz getting another before the period was over. Each team scored a goal in the second period so it was 4-2 Canada heading into the third.
There’s no shortage of missed opportunities the Canadians can look to when analyzing where they could have found one more goal:
-Russia was twice penalized for the same delay of game call given to Nash and Canada couldn’t score on either of those power plays.
-Martin St. Louis had a wide open net in the first period and hit the post.
-Nash was stopped on a partial breakaway during the second period.
As a result, it was tied 4-4 after 60 minutes and the extra period didn’t last very long.
“You get a game into overtime, it’s flip a coin,” said Hitchcock. “We all know that. We’ve all been in these games before.”
The Canadian players kept their helmets on while accepting their silver medals and many hung their heads while the Russians celebrated.
All was not lost here. The second-place finish was enough for Canada to regain the top spot in the world rankings that will be used for the 2010 Olympics, meaning the host nation will get its choice of dressing room and easier opponents during the Games in Vancouver.
On top of that, many of the players that lost here will be part of the Canadian team that tries to win gold in 2010.
“It’s disappointing but it’s a real learning experience for our younger players to understand how to deal with the pressure of playing at home,” said Hitchcock. “We all know that the Olympics are the measuring stick.
“If you’re talking about world power, if you’re talking about supremacy in hockey, you talk about the Olympics.”
The 2009 IIHF World Hockey Championship will be held April 24-May 10 in Bern and Kloten, Switzerland.