BUFFALO – We’re going to go out on a limb here and assume Disney will not be calling anytime soon. And as time passes, Russia’s 2011 gold medal victory in the World Junior Championship will fade because it didn’t involve a bunch of kids from Moose Jaw.
Which is a shame, because from a pure hockey standpoint, Russia’s performance at the WJC, capped by its 5-3 victory over Canada in the championship game, was truly Miracle on Ice, Part II. The stage was admittedly not as big as the one occupied by the 1980 U.S. Olympic team, but its road to the championship was every bit as compelling and worthy of admiration.
Much of the post-mortem of this Canada-centric tournament will center on the fact that Canada choked up a championship. And there is little doubt it did just that. After playing five periods of perfect hockey in the semifinal and two-thirds of the gold medal game, the Canadians abandoned almost every facet of the game that had given them success and shame on them for doing that. And shame on the coaches for allowing it to slip away without calling a timeout after the second Russian goal to calm down their players.
But to focus too much on that would give an enormous and unjust short shrift to a Russian team that played with the heart of a lion. The Russians have been criticized for many years for being selfish and easily defeated by adversity, but this team was the complete opposite. This is a team that started the tournament with two losses. It is a group of players who were in seriously dire straits in each one of its medal-round games, but was rescued by unexpected late-game heroics. It won a gold medal in a game in which it was thoroughly dominated for 40 minutes and was trailing 3-0 after two periods with more than 18,000 fans against them.
It was a team whose captain, Vladimir Tarasenko suffered certain broken ribs when he was inadvertently kicked by Marcus Foligno near the end of the second period. Russian coach Valeri Bragin tried to tell Tarasenko to shut it down for the night, but he would have none of it, then went out and tied the score early in the third period.
“He’s the best captain in my life,” said Russian goalie Igor Bobkov from the London Knights, who came into the game with his team down 3-0 in the second period.
This is a team whose members played for one another, a trait that is not often associated with Russian teams. Bobkov is well aware of the stereotype, but said this group of players bucked it every step of the way.
“We’re a little bit crazy, I think,” Bobkov said. “The way we won the last three games was unbelievable. It was our friendship. We never gave up and we played for each other.”
They also played for their coach. Bragin took over the Russian junior program this season and after years of infighting between coaches and star players in the past, Bragin earned the respect of his players and provided a galvanizing force. If the Russians are looking for a coach for their Olympic program when they host the Games in 2014, they could do a lot worse than Bragin, who earned an enormous amount of respect during his playing career in Denmark.
Los Angeles Kings coordinator of amateur scouting, Mike Futa, played against Bragin in the Danish Elite League and on an all-star team made up of import players and said Bragin was a formidable opponent.
“I think he broke his nose every game,” Futa said. “I mean, go take a look at him. He looks like Gerry Cheevers’ mask. He was a guy who was a warrior out there and he never gave up. He’s a special guy. I used to call him the godfather of Russia.”
If that’s the case, this Russian team took on the personality of its coach like no team ever before. This was undoubtedly one of the biggest collapses in Canadian hockey history, even bigger than 2004 in Helsinki when Canada lost to USA after having a 3-1 lead after two periods. But when you look at the body of work from this Russian team, there’s just as much credit reserved for them as there is blame for the Canadian team.
The bigger, stronger, faster Russians simply ground down the Canadian team the same way it did to Finland in the quarterfinal and Sweden in the semis.
“Our coaches prepared us to be champions,” said Evgeni Kuznetsov, who had three assists in the game and likely would have been named tournament MVP if the voting had not been conducted after the second period of the final. “It is the best team in the world right now and we proved it today and yesterday and the day before.”
AMERICANS BOUNCE BACK FROM SEMIFINAL TO BEAT SWEDEN FOR BRONZE
In the bronze medal game, Team USA bested Sweden 4-2 in a contest that made world junior history for the Americans, even if the color was bronze instead of gold.
“I knew it was the first time we had won back-to-back medals,” said coach Keith Allain. “I was not aware it was the first time we won a medal on home ice.”
Which is a big deal for the U.S. The team showed resiliency after its no-show versus Canada in the semifinal and beating the Swedes was no easy task. Adam Larsson was once again a king on the Swedish blueline and goalie Fredrik Wentzel-Petersson played well in place of deposed started Robin Lehner. The key for the U.S. was not repeating – or dwelling on – the Canada game.
“I think we had a really good start today and that was huge,” said center Nick Bjugstad, who scored America’s third goal on an incredible tip-in. “Yesterday it was pretty tough waking up, but we realized we had a chance at a bronze medal, which is quite an honor.”
The Americans were physical and fast against the Swedes and certainly deserved the win.
“It was a little bit of a rejuvenation for the country,” said center Chris Brown, who had an assist on the first U.S. goal.
The fact the Americans didn’t pack it in with gold out of reach is a great indication of how far the nation’s program has come. – Ryan Kennedy
RUSSIA COMPLETES EPIC COMEBACK AT WORLD JUNIOR CHAMPIONSHIP
REPORTER: Ryan Kennedy | PRODUCER: Ted Cooper