Net gains for jr. finalists

RYAN PYETTE, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:49 PM ET

BUFFALO -- Mark Visentin and Dmitri Shikin weren't in net when the world junior tournament started on Boxing Day, which, at the moment, feels like ages ago.

But they're both in there now.

Neither was the original go-to guy for his team, but both are in that position with the gold medal on the line Wednesday night at HSBC Arena.

The Canadian net was supposed to belong to Olivier Roy, who's been groomed for this opportunity since he was 16 and is a year older than Visentin.

But when Roy lost the preliminary-round shootout to Sweden's Robin Lehner last Friday, Canadian coach Dave Cameron turned it over to Visentin, the Phoenix Coyotes first-rounder and Niagara IceDogs puckstopper who was so steady in the semifinal win over the United States.

The Russian crease was the property of big Anaheim Ducks' pick Igor Bobkov, a London Knights goalie, until Canada beat him six times on Boxing Day. The much smaller Shikin got a chance and he's shone ever since, including beating Lehner, the huge Ottawa Senators prospect, in a semifinal shootout.

But that's the way it has gone lately -- especially in Canada -- with the hockey tournaments that matter most to us.

The guy first handed the steering wheel isn't driving the bus by the end of it.

It happened at the 2002 Olympics when Martin Brodeur took over from Curtis Joseph and of course, last year in Vancouver when Roberto Luongo stepped in for Brodeur.

The odds of it happening at these pressure-packed junior tournaments, where the stakes are so high and the criticism vicious, is even greater.

"There's so much pressure on these kids and the expectations are through the roof," Canadian goalie coach Ron Tugnutt said. "People watching at home don't understand. They don't know this is the first time for most of these goalies playing in front of 19,000 people like this. They just watch and expect him to play better.

"I know Jake Allen struggled with it last year (in Saskatoon). Goalie changes happen. When we had Olivier in there, we had always said we'd evaluate our situation on a day-to-day basis."

Visentin plays in St. Catharines, where they jam the rink for home games with 3,100 strong. This atmosphere is an adjustment. He heard what fans were saying about Roy and understands what Canadian goalies face.

"You can't worry about what's being said or written in the media," Visentin said. "All that stuff, you can't control. You can't put more pressure on yourself. You just have to focus on doing your job."

Do we, in Canada, eat our puckstoppers alive? Every day here until it stopped Tuesday morning, Cameron has been asked about the status of his starting goalie.

"I know this about our guys -- they're both great goalies," Tugnutt said. "We have a guy drafted in the first round by an NHL team and we have another guy who's a fifth-round pick of the Edmonton Oilers. No other teams here have the same credentials our goalies have."

Every goalie here in Buffalo believes they have the talent. Visentin didn't need his tires pumped to play well.

"More ice time," Visentin said. "That's what the Swiss game meant to me. The difference was I got the chance to go in there, play, and run with it. I know what it's like to back up. My first year in Niagara, I sat out something like 30 straight games. But I never felt like I wanted to go down to Tier II Junior A or anything like that.

"I wanted to make it in the OHL. For me to start this gold-medal game for Canada, it's an incredible honour."

Visentin contributed to Canada's semifinal win not just with key saves. His puck-handling was outstanding.

"I thought he broke up a lot of their forechecks," Tugnutt said. "I played with Marty Turco (in Dallas) and he was the same way as Mark. He felt better when he was able to get out there with the puck on his stick and handle it."

The frenetic Shikin has a different style. The third overall pick in the Kontinental Hockey League two years ago has an uncanny knack for getting a piece of the first shot.

"We saw Bobkov the first game, they switched to Shikin, and he's been solid since he's gone in," Tugnutt said. "He's not big. He's a great first-save goalie. Our team's approach has to be to find a way to get to the rebounds.

"That's how we'll score on him."

These teams know each other. They played 10 days ago. But other than TV, neither team knows the goalie they'll face.

As usual, everything could boil down to what happens between the pipes.

Goalies change -- but the gravity of their situation never does.

* * * * *

Starting goalies by the numbers

Expected starting goalies in the world junior gold-medal game between Canada and Russia Wednesday at HSBC Arena:

Canada: Mark Visentin. Age: 18. Hometown: Waterdown, Ont. Club team: Niagara IceDogs (OHL). Height: 6-foot-2. Weight: 198 pounds.

Tournament stats: 3 games, 180 minutes, 1.00 goals-against average, .961 save percentage, (shots-saves) 77-74.

Russia: Dmitri Shikin. Age: 19. Hometown: Electrostal, Russia. Club team: Saint Petersburg. Height: 5-foot-10. Weight: 176 pounds.

Tournament stats: 5 games, 315.44 minutes, 2.47 GAA, .929 save percentage, (shots-saves) 182-169).

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