Russia perfect adversary for gripping matchup

JIM KERNAGHAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 9:16 AM ET

Pass the tranquillizers, but keep the champagne handy. Arguably the most meaningful hockey game of 2005 stands as the perfect finale to the world junior hockey tournament tonight.

It's Team Canada for the gold medal. It's Team Canada against Team Russia. And it's Team Canada on a mission.

The battered Canadian hockey psyche, alternately comforted by international success or crushed by defeat, can rise heavenward from this widely televised game or plunge into despair over the game we love to call our own. This one sets us up for greater highs -- or lows -- than ever.

It's not the epic 1972 Summit Series, but a teenaged version of it. These kids, like their NHL counterparts facing the Soviet Union for the first time 33 years ago, are the very best.

As a result of the NHL lockout, all available junior hands are on deck. Brent Sutter and his coaching staff are superb. North Dakota's time zone is favourable and a flood of Canadian rooters will furnish home-game conditions.

There can be no second-guessing, no suggestions that had so-and-so been available, things might have turned out more favourably.

After five games, the numbers tell a tale. Canada has outscored the opposition 35-6 and has held the lead in all but 53 of the 300 minutes played.

A victory tonight would go a long way toward erasing the recent past. In their last three gold-medal games against the Russians, Canada has come up short each time -- 3-2 in overtime at Winnipeg in 1999, 5-4 in the 2002 final in the Czech Republic and 3-2 at the 2003 final in Halifax.

A defeat in the sharper spotlight of a wiped-out NHL season would mean a winter longer than chatty TSN analyst Pierre Maguire's soliloquies. Speaking of Maguire, who never uses three superlatives when 27 will do, they might have to nail him to the floor for fear he'll sail out of the broadcast booth on a cushion of ethereal adjectives.

There's enough Canadian talent on the ice for Maguire or anyone else with an appreciation of hockey nuances to wax eloquent about, certainly.

London's Jeff Carter of the Soo Greyhounds has resembled a veteran pro from the tournament outset.

Sidney Crosby's puck genius has been even more apparent in the fast company of the world's best.

London Knights Corey Perry and Danny Syvret, Patrice Bergeron and all the rest make a comparison between this team and the 1987 team, featuring the likes of Joe Sakic, Mark Recchi, Trevor Linden and Theoren Fleury, an intriguing one.

Canadian goaltender Jeff Glass, not to be confused with the London hurdler who topped the 1984 Olympic Games highlight reels, is not likely to see a soft night against a team that boasts such players as Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin.

As usual, the Russians are peaking at the perfect juncture. And as usual, for all but the most discerning observer, they've negotiated their way to the final relatively silently and efficiently.

It doesn't get much better than Canada-Russia. For tournament organizers, only a Canada-U.S. final replicating last year's game won by the U.S. could be more attractive.

But this is the game, for historical reasons, most Canadians want. Since the egos of the NHL's owners and players have absconded with a large part of the game that attracts so many of us across each winter, it helps fill a large post-holidays void.

A win by Canada would be a brief reprieve from such matters as Christmas bills and, more seriously, the horrific tsunami death toll.

A loss and everyone takes off their gloves. It's hand-wringing time again.


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