UFA, RUSSIA – When you give up just two goals in the three most important games of the tournament, it should be no surprise when you’re named the MVP. That’s what John Gibson did in leading his Team USA squad to its second World Junior Championship gold in four years and all credit goes to the Anaheim Ducks prospect and Kitchener Rangers netminder.
But there was another hero on the night for the Americans and it was the smallest of them all, University of North Dakota sparkplug Rocco Grimaldi. The Florida Panthers second-rounder potted the first two goals (Vincent Trocheck had an empty-netter for a 3-1 victory over Sweden) and represented all that was good about the U.S. overall in this tournament in the game: he was fast and he was skilled.
The Swedes may have been the best skaters in Ufa, but Team USA matched them stride-for-stride and once again played excellent team defense to shut down their opponent. The fact Grimaldi was the killer made for a nice redemption story; he struggled early in the tournament and was the 13th forward at one point, but never gave up on himself.
“I was reading the Bible a lot, reading God’s word,” he said. “I know the talent he has blessed me with and I know he didn’t bring me here for nothing. My family and friends were sending me pick-me-up messages and my trainer back home, Larry Barron, told my mom I was going to play a big part and he said I had two in me, so good call by Larry.”
In the bronze medal game, Russia grabbed a medal on home ice, defeating Canada 6-5 on an overtime goal by draft-eligible power forward Valery Nichushkin. The Canucks go home without a medal for the first time since 1998 and if there was an easy culprit, it was clearly the mental side of the game. The players seemed to let the pressure of expectations get to them as they fell behind by multiple goals against both the Americans in the semifinal and the Russians in the bronze medal game.
“Even though we were down early I didn’t think we played badly,” said left winger Jonathan Huberdeau. “It just seemed like we were always down a goal. It’s not only Canada that can win a medal now, there were a lot of countries in Ufa, four or five. There’s world-class parity. We knew what was in front of us, we just didn’t do the job.”
Meanwhile, overthinking seemed to plague the coaching staff. In a routine that is becoming quite tiresome for Canadian fans, the Canucks used both goaltenders in their final two games, though it was unnecessary this year. While pulling Malcolm Subban after an American onslaught in the semifinal made sense because his team was playing so poorly in front of him, there was no point starting Jordan Binnington against the Russians: Subban did nothing to lose the job. Sure enough, a bad Canadian start saw coach Steve Spott pull Binnington after three goals in eight minutes, while Russian bench boss Mikhail Varnakov stuck with Andrey Makarov through thick and thin on the night.
“The coach believed in me and my team believed in me,” Makarov said. “Canada made their own choice and you see the result.”
Varnakov may have alternated between Makarov and Andrei Vasilevski in the tournament (Vasilevski took the loss against Sweden in the semifinal, but didn’t play poorly), but at least the goalies knew where they stood – the crease was for one guy per game. Since goaltending has been such a nightmare for Canada in recent years, the team had to be extra-careful in how it handled netminding this time out and that did not happen.
• Ryan Murphy was a controversial choice for Team Canada, since he was a bubble player, but plays for Spott in Kitchener. In the bronze medal game, he showed off the spectrum of the controversy: Murphy’s cannon point shot was responsible for two Canadian power play goals, but he was powerless to stop the bigger, stronger Nichushkin as the Russian teen swooped in to deposit the OT winner. To Murphy’s credit, he faced the media after the game.
• I ran into Nail Yakupov in an arena stairwell during the first intermission of the USA-Sweden game. Yakupov had become a lightning rod for Canadian media because he didn’t come out for interviews after the previous few games, despite being captain of the Russian squad. He did answer a few questions in English after the bronze medal win. Yakupov posed for pictures with a couple Russian fans in the stairwell and said he was happy with the win, though it was clear he was mentally exhausted from the pressures of the tournament. Just wait until the NHL…