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THN at the World Championship: The Russians have returned

QUEBEC CITY – The renaissance of Russian hockey now has a touchstone. In fact, Sunday’s victory in the gold medal game of the 2008 World Championship may go down in history as the precise moment in time the Russian bear began to claw its way back to the upper echelons of hockey supremacy.

A gold medal in a World Championship that doesn’t feature all the best NHL players shouldn’t be seen as a world altering event, but for the Russians it not only signals their first championship in this tournament in 15 years, but the way they did it has provided the rest of the world with notice that the Russians are slowly changing their way of doing business.

If their effort in this tournament is any indication, the days of Russia collecting a bunch of wildly talented individuals without any sense of discipline or appreciation of team are over. So too are the days when a Russian team would get discouraged after experiencing some adversity. That much was clearly evident when the Russians survived a Canadian onslaught in the first period and a two-goal deficit before winning it 5-4 on Ilya Kovalchuk’s goal at 2:42 of overtime.

“I think they have great continuity and I think they’re well-coached,” Canadian coach Ken Hitchcock said of the Russian team. “I think Mr. (Slava) Bykov has done a great job. He has made them accountable and you can see that on the ice. You can see their team plays with character. They have a great team.”

Anyone who has watched international hockey over the past decade would say that wasn’t always the case. One sure way to defeat Russia in the past was to get on them physically early, score a couple of goals and watch their big stars scoot for the least dangerous places on the ice. The Russians used to roll four lines, but Bykov shortened his bench and kept throwing out players who were intent on coming in waves on Canada.

And Kovalchuk, who scored the tying goal and the game-winner, redeemed himself big time after being kicked out of two games in the tournament and being suspended for the semifinal.

“Lots of times with the national team we were down two-zip in different tournaments, everyone would say, ‘That’s it. It’s over,’ ” Kovalchuk said. “But then we just talked in the locker room and we said, ‘We’ve got nothing to lose. We’re playing in Canada against Canada against one of the best teams in the world.’ ”

This win will give the Russians something around which to rally, but there are already a number of other factors that are fuelling Russia’s rise in hockey. First of all, the Minister of Sport is former Soviet star Slava Fetisov, who puffs out his chest when he talks about what is going on in Russia.

He claims there have been 200 new rinks built in Russia in the past three years and said 300 more are on the way. (Those numbers don’t jibe with ones the International Ice Hockey Federation has, but you get the idea.)

The Russians are also in the process of taking back their league, with billionaire Alexander Medvedev backing the reformed elite league and recruiting investors to pump money into the venture. There will be competition for NHL talent – probably not as much as the Russians claim there will be, but it will serve to keep some of the top players home longer.

For Canada, losing in the gold medal game was a bitter defeat, one they refused to blame on Rick Nash’s delay of game penalty in overtime that led to the winner. A 4-on-3 situation is almost impossible to defend, even moreso when your opponent throws out Kovalchuk, Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin and Sergei Fedorov on the power play.

When Canada looks back on the gold medal game, it will certainly lament the fact it allowed a 4-2 lead to slip away more than the penalty in overtime. After taking it to the Russians and controlling the puck for most of the first two periods, it was almost the complete opposite scenario in the third. The Russians came on in a big way and the Canadians had a hard time getting the puck back.

Dany Heatley, who established a Canadian record with 12 goals in the tournament and was named MVP, said it certainly wasn’t a case of the Canadians completely sitting back and being comfortable with their lead.

“In fact, I thought it was the opposite,” Heatley said. “I thought maybe we were trying to protect the lead a little too much. Our game is to forecheck hard and be on their ‘D’ and work the puck in their end hard. Two-goal lead going into the third, I thought we had played pretty well up to then. We gave them too much room in the third period and they have some really good shooters over there.”

Ken Campbell is at the World Championship in Quebec and will be filing daily reports through to the final day.

Go to THN's World Championship Central HERE.


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