2011 WJC: Russia comes back in third to beat Canada for gold

By Jason Menard

Team Canada entered the 2011 World Junior Hockey Championship with a team built for revenge. And while a modern demon was exorcised in the semi-finals, it was a more traditional bane — Russia — that walked away with the gold.

Staking the North American rivals to a 3-0 lead, the Russian bear roared back with five unanswered goals in the third period en route to claiming World Junior gold 5-3. While early concerns about Canada’s goal-scoring proved largely unfounded (in fact, 16 different Canucks scored over the tournament), it was Russia‘s elite offensive talent that the Canucks weren’t able to match.

Many looked at the Canadian roster as a team designed to beat the U.S. — which it did. Unfortunately, for Team Canada, a club built to avenge last year’s gold-medal game loss to the Americans wasn’t built to meet this year’s needs. When push came to shove, Canada couldn’t find that superlative offensive game-breaker — like Russia‘s Vladimir Tarasenko (STL) — who could take over the tourney.

While Team Canada was looking for lucky number 16 — in terms of gold medals, the Russians found their fourth as Russia (not forgetting the nine they won as the Soviet Union). And while the Canadians were in their 10th-consecutive gold-medal tournament, the Russians were making a return to the finals for the first time since 2007.

The Russians started the tournament off slowly, losing to Canada in both teams’ opening match of the tournament, and following that up with a shutout loss at the hands of the Swedes. However, they got up to speed and they avenged both of preliminary round losses. They defeated Sweden in the semis to earn the right to meet up with their long-time rivals in the finals. And once they got there, they took care of Canada. Tarasenko paced the Russian squad with nine points in six games prior to the finals. In the finals, Tarasenko added a goal and an assist. Washington Capitals prospect Evgeny Kuznetsov (named to the tournament all-star team), Maxim Kitsyn (LA), and Danil Sobchenko formed a powerful offensive quartet for the Russians, with each player accounting for at least seven points each over the six games.

The Russians also were able to generate considerable offensive from the blue line. Dmitri Orlov (WAS) played a key role for the squad at both ends of the ice, finishing with nine points in six games. He entered the final game with a plus-nine rating and earned a berth on the all-star squad.

Those performances allowed Russia to play the role of the cardiac kids. The squad certainly made arriving in the gold-medal game a less-than-simple task. In addition to an incredible comeback against Finland, the Russians were also in danger of losing to the Swedes in the semi-finals, trailing 3-2 before scoring the tying goal with just under a minute-and-a-half in the final frame. And the Russians left the most heart-racing performance for last, coming back from three down to defeat the Canadians 5-3.

The Canadians embraced history throughout the tournament. It was reported that the team placed a list of all players who had previously worn their numbers at the World Junior Hockey Championship; they awarded a lunch pail to the hardest-working player of the game; they signed a contract embracing their lunch-pail mentality. And in embracing history, they managed to create a little of it themselves.

Brayden Schenn ran away with the tournament scoring lead, finishing with eight goals and nine assists over the tournament — which included a four-goal performance during the preliminary round. The L.A. Kings’ prospect tied the Canadian record for most points in a world junior tournament. Team Canada captain Ryan Ellis (NAS) also became the WJC’s all-time top-scoring defenseman when he opened the final game with a goal.

Both Schenn and Ellis received the awards as the tournament’s top forward and defenseman, respectively, and both players were named to the all-star team, joined by Ryan Johansen (CLB).

Russia overcame goaltending challenges to take home gold. Game one starter Igor Bobkov (ANH) — the only player on the Russian squad playing in North America — gave way to Dmitri Shikin after a shaky performance against Team Canada in game one. However, Bobkov reclaimed the Russian net mid-way through the gold-medal game, and was able to redeem himself, playing a huge role in bringing the Russians all the way back into contention after the club fell behind 3-0. In making 20 saves, Bobkov ended up receiving the player of the game award for the Russian squad in the finals.

Team Canada also had netminding issues. While Olivier Roy (EDM) was anointed Team Canada’s starter, he eventually gave way to Mark Visentin (PHO) half-way through the tournament. Roy had a pedestrian 3.57 goals against average and .875 save percentage. The change worked — for the most part. Visentin, entering the gold-medal game, allowed only three goals in three games and saved over 96 percent of the shots sent his way. He couldn’t match that performance in the finals, allowing five goals in the final frame to the Russians.

Although the host nation didn’t retain the tournament crown, it got a nice consolation prize in the form of the tournament’s bronze medal. The defending champions avoided any let-down from a disheartening semi-final loss to the Canadians by defeating the Swedes 4-2 in the bronze-medal game and the medal win made history in the U.S. as last year’s gold and this year’s bronze represented the first time in the tournament history that the Americans won medals in back-to-back tournaments.

By losing to the Americans in the bronze-medal game, the Swedes failed to medal for the first time since 2007. Frederik Pettersson-Wentzel (ATL) turned aside 40 shots for the Swedes in the game, after being thrust into the spotlight in lieu of Sweden‘s regular starter Robin Lehner (OTT). In the end, both Lehner and Pettersson-Wentzel equally split time between the Swedish pipes, unlike the U.S. who rode Jack Campbell‘s superlative international experience throughout the tournament. Campbell (DAL) played in all but just under 10 minutes of the tournament for the U.S. and was named the tourney’s top netminder and the goaltender on the tournament all-star team.

The Finns were led by Teemu Pukkinen (DET) and netminder Joni Ortio (CAL) en route to a disappointing sixth-place finish — disappointing only due to the fact that the Finns were poised to claim a semi-final berth in the aforementioned game leading the Russians 3-1 with only four minutes remaining in the game, before surrendering three unanswered goals, including the overtime winner. The Finns, who also received strong performances from Minnesota Wild prospect Erik Haula (four goals in six games) and Florida Panthers prospect Joonas Donskoi (seven points in six games; a plus-five rating) ran into the thing teams dread most at the WJC — the hot goaltender.

Finland fell to the Swiss, who continue their climb into the ranks of the respectable courtesy of this year’s fifth-place finish. Switzerland, as tradition has held, was led from between the pipes by netminder Benjamin Conz. Arguably the tournament’s most valuable player — if you base your judgement on one’s value to the team — Conz came up huge when it mattered most, blanking the Finns in the shootout to claim its fifth-place finish. Up front, Inti Pestoni was the only Swiss player to crack the tournament’s top-30 scorers, finishing with five goals and seven points in six games. Conz finished the tournament with a 2.97 goals against average and a .918 save percentage.

Norway and Germany, to little surprise, were relegated. However, Germany did have one bright spot in the form of netminder Niklas Treutle. Although Treutle split the action almost evenly with teammate Phillip Grubauer (WAS), the former clearly outplayed the latter — finishing the tournament with a 2.26 goals against average, good for fourth-best in the tournament.

Both the Czech Republic and the Slovaks were participants in the relegation tournament, with the Czechs, led by Jakub Jerabek’s eight points, breezing through the relegation round with three victories, while the Slovaks just avoided relegation, squeaking past the Norwegians courtesy of an overtime win. And while the Slovaks couldn’t recapture the magic that they exhibited last year, Richard Panik (TB) certainly was key to Slovakia conjuring up some wins. Panik was Schenn’s equal — at least goal-scoring wise, leading up to the final game. He too scored seven goals in six games, but only added two assists. His nine points were good for the top-scoring non-Canuck or Russian in the tournament.

Prior to the tournament we identified Group A as the Group of Death, and that bore out through the games, as both participants in the gold-medal game, as well as Sweden came from that group. Only the U.S. came from the much more friendly Group B, and they knocked off Group A’s preliminary round winner, Sweden, in the bronze-medal game.

Buffalo was a gracious host, with media raving about its hospitality and dedication to the tournament. And the city — along with a healthy contingent of cross-border fans who traversed the Rainbow Bridge from north of the 49th to cheer on the Canucks — delivered. This year’s tournament was the best-attended WJC on U.S. soil. At an expected final attendance of approximately 330,000 over 31 games, Buffalo obliterated the previous American host record set by Grand Forks in 2005 (193,256). In fact, attendance at this tournament exceeded that of the men’s hockey tournament at the 2002 Salt Lake City attendance.

This year’s tournament was as much of a success off the ice as it was on it. Although not at the all-time level set in 2009 in Ottawa, ON, Canada (453,282 fans over 31 games), it represents the best-attended under-20 tournament ever outside of Canada.