World junior loss to Russia sends Canada on tougher medal-round path

Irfaan Gaffar and Mark Spector recap Canada's loss to Russia at the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship.

VANCOUVER — OK, Canada. Begin to forget.

We still celebrate the various anniversaries of the ’72 Summit Series like it was our emancipation, and you can’t swing a cat these days without seeing a replay of a Jordan Eberle goal from 2010. But no matter how fabulous the game — and Canada-Russia on New Year’s Eve 2018 was indeed a canoe tipper — it can’t become an instant classic when the bad guys win.

Were they the better team? Perhaps, though the shots were 31-31, the scoring chances almost even, and the final score 2-1 for Russia.

Will a good kick in the pants help Canada, as it goes into a sudden-death quarterfinal Wednesday that just got a little bit tougher? Well, whatever doesn’t kill you…

“We have to believe,” said Canadian captain Maxime Comtois. “It’s only one loss. We’re not out of the tournament. We’re going to have a chance to play in the quarters, battle for a medal. We’ve got to stay positive.”

Canada’s reward for entering the tournament as the defending gold medallists was a soft start to the schedule, ramping up the intensity by playing Denmark, then Switzerland, then the Czechs before seeing the likes of Russia. But in their fourth game here, the Canadians met a team that was as big (or bigger) than they are, as fast as they are, and undoubtedly as skilled.

And in goal, Russian goalie Pyotr Kochetkov was both brilliant and one big save better than Mike DiPietro in Canada’s goal. Kochetkov is the guy who gave up just two goals on 91 shots as the Russians beat our junior all-stars in the CIBC Canada-Russia Series this winter. Much of that team is here in Vancouver.

Kochetkov made the save of the night on Comtois, who deftly one-timed a pass off a two-on-one that Kochetkov had no business stopping. Instead of Canada taking a 2-1 lead on that play, it was Pavel Shen who danced through the Canadians on a 100-foot rush, slipping one behind DiPietro for the game-winner, with nine minutes to play.

“It was a good win in a tough game,” Shen said. “But, it was just preliminary.”

“We played with emotion,” said Vitali Kravtsov, whose line with Grigori Denisenko and Klim Kostin was, for much of this game, too much for Canada to handle. “We knew with a win we would win the group. Finish the year with beauty, and start the next one with strength.

“We played for our country.”

Us Canadians win so often at this level, hosting two of every three world juniors, that this tournament becomes almost a national possession. Are we complacent? Confident?

Would it have become a Canadian tradition if we didn’t win gold as often as we have?

So, should we be freaking out that we Canada 3-1 in the group stage? That they’ll now see Finland in Wednesday’s quarterfinal instead of Slovakia, who will play Russia?

“No,” said winger Owen Tippett, who had a one-timer opportunity bounce over his stick in the dying seconds. “Every team faces adversity in these tournaments. We’re just happy it came when it did — nor during the elimination round.”

“We’re not eliminated. It’s a free lesson,” stressed head coach Tim Hunter. “We learned the same lesson last year when we lost to the U.S. in a shootout at the outdoor game (at Buffalo). We should have won that game going away, but we stubbed our toe. But we learned a lesson from it. That’s what we’ll do tonight — and tomorrow.”

This one had everything, including a ton of chippy play and hard, ill-intentioned hits — from both sides. Comtois took a minor for diving in Period 1, and then had a second, dramatic fall in the opening 20 minutes, apparently channelling his inner Alex Burrows here at the home of the Vancouver Canucks.

So, during the first intermission, captain Klim Kostin went on Russian TV and said this (translation courtesy Latvian reporter Aivis Kalnins):

“In his previous life (Comtois) worked at circus. Didn’t you know that? Perhaps he watched the World Cup of soccer. Neymar is probably his best friend.”

Hey, we don’t like the Russians. Why would we expect them to like us?

Now, the only way they will see each other again is if they meet in a medal game on Saturday — preferably the late game. For all the marbles.

“It was a good win versus Canada, for psychology,” said Denisenko. “We are confident for the next round.”

So is Canada. Or, that’s what they’re telling themselves today.

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