The 2009 World Junior Championship final will see a repeat of last year. Both Canada and Sweden were big favorites to make it all the way for a showdown on Monday in Ottawa, but in the meantime the semi finals provided top excitement and entertainment.
Hosts Canada faced Russia in what will go down as one of the most dramatic games ever played at a World Juniors. If the historical background between both giants was not spicy enough already, Saturday’s game had everything: end-to-end action, great goaltending, a last-second goal and a shootout.
Canada wasted four leads before finding themselves down 4-5 with just a handful of seconds left to play. Then it was the smallest player on the ice coming up with the biggest achievement. Jordan Eberle fumbled the puck away from Dmitri Kulikov’s knees to put a backhander behind Russian netminder Vadim Zhelobnyuk with 5.4 seconds left on the clock. The goal sent a packed ScotiaBank Place crazy as the interior was shaking all the way up to the fourth level.
Another unsung hero came up big for Canada early on. Late call-up Evander Kane’s play resulted in Canada taking the lead twice. First he set up Brett Sonne for the opening goal. Five minutes later he fed Patrice Cormier for a 2-1 lead. However the Russians were not to be denied. First offensive defenseman Maxim Goncharov tied it up before Dmitri Klopov struck right after Cormier’s goal to cap the first period scoring at two apiece.
In a rather one-sided second period, Canada enjoyed numerous power plays, but despite their top-notch record with the man advantage this tournament, they were unable to crack the solid Russian defense until 16:40. Eberle found room between Zhelobnyuk’s legs to put Canada ahead once again.
Evgeny Grachev killed any momentum there was when he tied the game up within a minute of the third period taking full advantage of a Tyler Ellis miscue.
Both teams exchanged goals in a fast-paced period. Brett Sonne reacted superbly on a loose puck on the blue line with Canada being a man down and fed it to a speeding Angelo Esposito, whereas on the other end Sergei Andronov slotted home on a 5-on-3 situation.
With just over two minutes left, Dmitri Klopov seemed to have earned his team a ticket for Monday’s final when he managed to tap home in a scrimmage in front of Dustin Tokarski but with time running out it was Eberle who kept the reigning champions in the game with his last-minute equalizer.
“The guys were down after the (Russian) goal for sure," Evander Kane said. “But we never quit. We still knew we had a chance."
The 10-minute overtime saw everyone on the edge of their seats, but it did not bring a decision, meaning that shootout ensued.
Eberle and John Tavares finished theirs clinically leaving the Russian goaltender no chance. The skilled Russians on their turn were stoned twice by Dustin Tokarski. Both Dmitri Kugryshev and Pavel Chernov saw their effort parried away by the Tampa Bay pick.
Russian coach Sergei Nemchinov told the media that he went with both shooters because they had excelled during practice. That left both Russian top goal scorers in the tournament Evgeny Filatov and Dmitri Klopov sitting off the ice.
Despite the loss, Nemchinov felt some room for reflection: “This was probably our best game this tournament. I told the guys in the locker room I’m very proud.”
Team Canada coach Pat Quinn was delighted with the outcome. "When it goes to a shootout, 15 or 20 years ago, people would probably have picked the Russians," he stated. "We’ve got some skill guys, too."
Their hard-fought victory puts Canada in the World Juniors final for the eighth straight year. Having won the previous four tournaments, Canada is aiming for equaling their all-time record of five straight wins set between 1993 and 1997.
But to do so they will need to overcome Sweden.
Sweden was expected to make it to the final facing a Slovak team that surprisingly defeated Team USA on Friday. Nevertheless Slovakia gave Sweden a genuine run for their money during the first semi-final of the day.
Much like the Americans, Sweden found an incredibly hot goaltender on their way. Slovak Jaroslav Janus, who plays for the Erie Otters in the OHL, came off a 44-save performance in the quarter finals and stopped 41 Swedish shot in their round robin match-up (3-1 victory for Sweden). Today he came up big again with a record number of 46 saves. Yet it wasn’t enough for the hard working Slovaks to perform yet another miracle on ice.
The Swedes struck four third-period goals en route to a 5-3 victory. Mikael Backlund scored twice as did Tomas Tatar for the Slovaks, who played their fourth game in five days.
“In the third period we lost our strength and slowed down and as a result we lost concentration,” Team Slovakia head coach Stefan Mikes explained afterwards.
With the first period nearly completed, Marek Mertel let go a slapshot that found its way to the net, giving the Slovaks an encouraging lead. Backlund tied things up halfway the game but the Stingy Slovaks struck again when Tomas Tatar was given ample room to pick his spot. His high wrister flew past Jacob Markstrom much to the appreciation of the crowd who was cheering for the underdog team.
“My players and I really appreciated the support although I think part of the Canadian fans wanted a weaker opponent in the final,” Mikes joked.
Steadily focused on getting the job done, Sweden made a difference during a five-minute span in the third period in which they scored three goals. The last one will go down as one of the best goals scored this tournament. Mattias Tedenby stickhandled past three Slovak players before setting up Simon Hjalmarsson who was left with an easy finish that even Janus could do nothing against.
Tatar made it a one-goal game again when his shot from the slot flew behind Markstrom but an empty-net goal by Oscar Moller, his first of the tournament, sealed the deal for Sweden.
“Our patience was the key today but we didn’t want to go home today we wanted to play the final,” Backlund said. “It will be good to beat Canada in Canada and hopefully this year will be our year. We saved our best game for Monday.”
Swedish coach Per Marts was obviously satisfied with his team locking consecutive final spots at the World Juniors.
“I’m really happy. We learned a lot today,” he said. “We were the favorites coming into this game and fell behind against a very good defensive team and a really good goalie. After the second period we said to ourselves that we should show the world how good we are and we stuck to the game plan. My players now have dreams. It’s an attitude that they didn’t have in recent years, but now they can actually play for something. Hopefully we’ll have our best game left.”
Meanwhile at the Civic Centre, Finland all but secured their spot for next year’s World Juniors after a comfortable 7-1 rout over Kazakhstan.
Jyri Niemi opened the scoring festivities after just 22 seconds. Teemu Hartikainen led the Finns with a pair of goals and five points on the night. Konstantin Savenkov scored the lone goal for Kazakhstan who were outshot 50-21.
Despite the lopsided victory, all four teams in the relegation tournament could still potentially go down to Division 1. Finland and Latvia are in the best position currently though. The Finns need at least a point tomorrow against Germany whereas the Latvian team can reward their loyal drum-banging fans with a victory over Kazakhstan.
In case Germany surprises Finland and Latvia beats Kazakhstan, the group has three teams with six points each. The first tie-breaker would be goal differential. Finland holds a 5-1 win over Latvia already while Latvia beat Germany 7-1 earlier.
The Kazakhs might have looked out of place this tournament, and have yet to register a win. Mathematically they can still avoid relegation. A win against Latvia tomorrow is a necessity and Finland would need to defeat Germany. Also here goal differential between Latvia, Germany and the Kazakhs would be the tie-breaker. With Kazakhstan having already been dealt a blow by the Germans (a 0-9 loss) in the round robin, their chances are fairly slim though.