This is how Darnell Nurse, the towering six-foot-four defender on Canada’s No. 1 shutdown tandem, described the relationship this summer between Canada and Russia’s U-20 teams: “I don’t think we really liked each other.”
That makes for quite the IIHF World Junior Championship finale.
Canada and Russia met for a couple games in August, and it was physical. “It was,” said Nurse’s ‘D’ partner, Shea Theodore, nodding.
“I’m sure it’s something that’s going to carry over to the final,” Nurse added. The 19-year-old was the Edmonton Oilers’ seventh overall pick in 2013. “Everyone’s gonna have to go out there and keep their emotions in check, just play our style of game, the way we’ve been playing, and we’ll be successful.”
Well, that’s exactly what Russian players said following their semifinal win earlier Sunday. In fact, Russian forward Ivan Barbashev said: "We can beat any team."
Nurse grinned when he heard that, but he didn’t quite take the bait. "You have to have that type of confidence going into the final," he said. "We’re capable of getting the right result."
As fellow D-man Joe Hicketts put it, Canada "didn’t play as well as we wanted to" in Sunday’s 5-1 win over Slovakia, but they got the win in front of a raucous crowd that started cheering "We want Russia!" and "We want gold!" mid-way through the third.
A lot of the focus of this tournament has been on Canada’s forwards — like Max Domi, Nic Petan (who scored a hat trick Sunday) and of course wunderkind Connor McDavid. In fact, when McDavid emerges for post-game interviews, reporters flock. It’s about the only chance you get for a one-on-one with another Canadian.
Nurse doesn’t mind the defensive corps not getting all the attention, though. This, despite the fact that through five games Canada had allowed just 99 shots on goal — 34 fewer than the second-best Swedes, and 52 less than the Russians. "I don’t think we really need attention," Nurse said, smiling. Meanwhile, McDavid, who had three assists, stood 10 feet over, surrounded by a gaggle of cameras and reporters. "The result is all that really matters."
Theodore, like all these Canadian players, was all business after the semifinal victory. It’s sometimes hard to tell who won and who lost after these games by the time players address the media. You don’t see a lot of smiles. Theodore described the feeling in Team Canada’s dressing room after the win, not as full of excitement, but: "Just confidence."
But the Anaheim Ducks first-round pick in 2013 lit up when he talked about his goal to put Canada up 3-0. "It’s pretty exciting," he said, grinning. "I mean, I can’t say I’ve had that many people scream after I score."
Hicketts says the team will "soak this in a little bit," then focus on the task at hand: Winning Canada's first world junior gold since 2009.
And it should be a barn-burner.
"We’re going to be looking for a physical game," Theodore said. "It should be a fun battle."