Unsung heroes help Canada win gold over Russia at world juniors

Team Canada celebrates after defeating Russia in the gold medal game at the World Junior Hockey Championships. (Ryan Remiorz/CP)

Blocked shots, diving attempts, big goals.

In the gold medal game of the 2020 world junior championship, it was the unsung heroes who won it for Canada in a 4-3 victory Sunday over Russia.

For the Canadians, an 18th gold medal at the event and first since 2018. Not to mention an opportunity to belt out “O Canada” and see the country’s flag raised in front of a few thousand Canadian fans who made the trip to Europe and cheer them on.

Akil Thomas was one of those players who did it all for the Canadians in front of a sold-out crowd at Ostravar Arena. In the first period when Canada was down a man on four occasions, he was the one who stepped up to block shots and do the little things right.

Entering the third period he had only played just under four minutes. In the third period, just 1:15. It didn’t matter at the end of the day as he bursted into the Russian zone to retrieve a loose puck late in the third, evaded a poke check from Russian goalie Amir Miftakhov, and slid a backhand into the net to give the Canadians the lead and eventual winner.

Thomas played sparingly during the tournament, but the Toronto native showed it just takes one moment and opportunity to change a game. Scoring your first goal at the tournament in the gold medal game — the winner to boot — isn’t too shabby.

It was a thrilling third period with so many back and forth opportunities, penalties and saves. Key blocked shots from defenceman Jared MacIsaac and Dylan Cozens also proved to be massive in keeping the score tight. Oh, and a little bit of luck as well — we’re looking at you Aidan Dudas, who was almost called for a delay of game penalty late.

There were few indications of the preliminary round matchup earlier in the event between the two where Russia beat Canada 6-0.

Five years after Canada beat the Russians in Toronto for gold at the world juniors, they did it again. Russia now hasn’t won gold at the world juniors since 2011.

And just like every game between these two countries, it had a flare for the dramatic.

Here are a few more takeaways from the victory…

Head-scratching calls & Hayton’s resillience

For all the penalties handed out — and there were a lot in the gold medal game — none might be as confusing as the one on Canadian captain Barrett Hayton eight minutes into the second period.

Hayton was going into the corner and was being hooked before going down to the ice. Somehow, he was the one who was called for a penalty on the play. It left many Canadian fans in Ostrava perplexed as to how that could happen.

Russia — on its fifth man advantage — finally struck after a shot from the point was tipped in front by Nikita Alexandrov, who plays for the QMJHL’s Charlottetown Islanders.

There were questions as to whether Hayton, loaned to Canada for the tournament by the Arizona Coyotes, would even play in the game after suffering an arm injury on Saturday in the semifinals against Finland.

He took warm-ups and any doubts on his health were dashed when he launched a wrist shot in the first period that just missed the net.

Among the tournament’s leading scorers, he also came up clutch in the third period by tying the game 3-3 on the power play with a wrist shot from the right circle that went off the post and into the corner of the net.

Despite the pain he may have felt, lifting up the winning trophy at the end of the day must be a pretty reassuring feeling.

The penalty song

Much has been made of the penalty song played at the world juniors when a player skates to the box. It’s this whiney tune with a sad saxophone.

Well, Canada heard that song a lot during the first period Sunday as the Canadians were on the penalty kill four times.

Tripping, interference, holding and a slashing call were the infractions against Canada, but yet somehow they survived the period. Much thanks for that can be given to strong play by Dudas, Thomas, MacIsaac and goaltender Joel Hofer.

They all sacrificed their bodies and blocked several Russian shots to ensure pucks wouldn’t get to Hofer. But when they did, Hofer was sensational like he has been all tournament long.

He finished the period with 10 saves and the game with 35 stops.

Was it emotions? Most likely. Controlling adrenaline in these environments isn’t easy.

Good karma for McMichael

It looked like Connor McMichael would give the lead early in the third period but was stopped on a breakaway by Miftakhov’s block after a great spring pass by linemate Raphael Lavoie.

He wasn’t deterred by the miss, and 34 seconds after the Russians went ahead 3-1, McMichael directed the puck into the net with his right skate from the hash marks for his fifth goal of the tournament. It was under review by the officials for a kicking motion towards the net, but determined a good goal to make it 3-2.

It was the start of the comeback for Canada and it didn’t let up afterwards.

Quick hits…

• Sweden rebounded for a 3-2 victory over rival Finland to claim bronze earlier Sunday.

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