January 4, 2005
Another showdownCanada, Russia junior final sure to be a classic
By KEN WIEBE -- Winnipeg Sun
GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- The world is about to find out if Canada can scratch its seven-year itch. Canada meets Russia tonight (7:08 p.m. CT, TSN) in the final game of the 2005 World Junior Hockey Championship, looking to bring home the country's first gold medal since 1997, when Canada blanked the United States 2-0 in Switzerland.
Canada, 5-0, has steamrolled the competition to the tune of 35-6 but the Russians, 4-1, present a new challenge.
The keys for Canada are to be disciplined and to contain Russia's skilled forwards, a group that includes Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, the first- and second-overall picks in the 2004 NHL entry draft.
"Where it's going to be won or lost is below the dots," said Team Canada captain Mike Richards of Kenora.
Canada enters the contest as the favourite, but there is ample emotional baggage for them to overcome.
Not only did Canada blow a 3-1 third-period lead to lose to the U.S. in the gold-medal game last year in Finland, they've also dropped all three previous gold-medal matchups against Russia since the tournament adopted a playoff format in 1996 -- dating back to the captivating 3-2 overtime loss in the 1999 tournament at the Winnipeg Arena.
Russia relishes the role of underdog.
"It was the same in Halifax," said Ovechkin, who won gold as a 16-year-old in 2003. "People said Canada is champions, Canada is best. We're going to try to prove Russia is better."
There's excitement in the air and nerves are not expected to be a factor.
"I know it's maybe (sounding like) a stuck record here, but with great challenges come great opportunities," said Team Canada head coach Brent Sutter. "To me, there's a big difference between being an intense hockey team and a tense hockey team. We want to be intense."
Since dropping its opener to the U.S., Russia has won four consecutive games and improved steadily in the process. Canada must continue its sound play in the defensive zone to have success and the defence pairing of Dion Phaneuf and Shea Weber will play a pivotal role in attempting to shut down either Ovechkin or Malkin.
"You've got to be aware when they're on the ice," said Phaneuf. "They are probably the two best forwards in the tournament so you have to be on your toes and ready to go. It's going to be a heck of a challenge for us."
"It's not just going to be us, it's going to be everybody," added Weber. "As a group, we've got to really focus on not having any mental lapses or making mental mistakes. Every line they have, every player can do some damage. You can't just focus on one player."
As for line matchups, Sutter wasn't about to tip his hand -- "I'm not going to give out our secrets" -- but it's likely Canada's top line of Patrice Bergeron, Sidney Crosby and Corey Perry will see plenty of Ovechkin.
"Obviously, I like the fact that (Sutter) has the confidence in me to match up against the big line," said Bergeron. "I take pride in playing well defensively. We know they're a great transition team, so we have to be ready.
"You've heard about this rivalry since you were a kid, being part of it is going to be great."
Although there is pressure on the top players to produce, it's times like these when unheralded guys can become heroes.
"When you're in the spotlight in a game like (today), that could happen," said energy-line forward Stephen Dixon, who has no points in 11 games during the past two world junior tournaments. "Everyone just has to go out and play their game."