When Canada faces Russia tonight in the gold medal game for the 2015 World Junior Championship, it will mark one of those few times in this great rivalry that convention is turned on its ear.
Most times when Russia faces Canada in international competition, it comes into the game with a bunch of wildcard players who are mysterious and unknown. That will not be the case tonight. These two teams have all kinds of familiarity with each other, dating back to the 2012 Under-17 World Hockey Challenge in Windsor, during which the Russians defeated an Ontario team with Darnell Nurse, Max Domi and Nick Ritchie in the semifinal before beating team USA in the final.
Since then, the players on the Canadian team have gone nose-to-nose with many of their Russian counterparts in the 2012 Ivan Hlinka Tournament (won by Canada), the 2013 Under-18 World Championship (won by Canada) and the 2014 World Junior bronze medal game (won by Russia).
But perhaps where conventional thinking will be more spectacularly turned around is in the approach each team takes to the game. Nobody in this tournament can match Canada’s top two lines for depth of talent and explosiveness. Even the Russians, with all their usual skill, can’t compete with the lines of Sam Reinhart between Domi and Anthony Duclair and Connor McDavid between Curtis Lazar and Nic Petan.
The Russian team, by contrast, is a bigger and more physical team on the back end where their defense corps averages 6-foot-2 and 192 pounds and will have to use its size and strength by taking the body and limiting the time and space for Canada’s forwards.
Sound familiar? It should, but it’s usually the other way around. Usually it’s Canada that relies on physical play and goaltending going into these kinds of games, but this time around Russia’s success will hinge on those two facets of the game. Anyone who really still believes Canada is not producing enough skill players has not made his or her way to a minor hockey game lately. Canada is producing all kinds of wonderfully skilled players, some of the best in the world, and that is no more evident than on this World Junior team.
That, of course, does not mean size will not be a factor for the Canadian team, because it will. The Canadians currently have a line of Frederik Gauthier between Lawson Crouse and Ritchie. That line will be pivotal to Canada’s hopes because it will be required to do exactly what it did against Slovakia. If that line can go out every once in a while and control the puck down low in the offensive zone, it will have done its job even if it doesn’t score a goal. That’s because by controlling the puck and grinding down the Russian defensemen, it will tire them out and leave them less able handle Canada’s top six forwards.
Canada’s defense corps has been excellent, both in taking care of its own end and moving the puck up the ice. Josh Morrissey, Madison Bowey, Samuel Morin, Dillon Heatherington and Shea Theodore were all members of the Canadian team that won the Under-18 World Championship in Sochi in 2012 and all have been outstanding.
The Russians, meanwhile, will try to slow the game down a little under the direction of their ultra-experienced coach Valeri Bragin, who is coaching in his fourth WJC. In the neutral zone, the Russians are vigilant about taking away the lanes down the boards, which forces teams go up the middle, where their big defensemen can step up and stop forwards. If the Russians are successful in doing that, they’ll have success in neutralizing Canada’s speedy and skilled forwards. Canada, on the other hand, will have to move the puck far more quickly than they did in the first two periods of the semifinal game against Slovakia.
Canada against Russia is always full of intrigue and almost never disappoints. Tonight’s gold medal game should be no exception, even if it resembles hockey’s version of Freaky Friday.