Three games were played tonight, one in each period. In the first, we saw the Canadian team we had seen throughout the tournament: a powerhouse, offensively capable and much too busy threatening to allow opportunities against. In the second we saw relatively boring hockey, punctuated by the occasional flurry.
Finally, in the third period, we saw either one of the greatest come-from-behind events in tournament history, or one of the greatest collapses.
The stars shone for Canada early on. Nashville prospect (and team captain) Ryan Ellis was in fine form in both ends, a performance best exemplified by one shift midway through the first period where Ellis stymied multiple Russians behind their own net, moving at will and retaining the puck despite their ineffective efforts to stop him.
Brayden Schenn tied Dale McCourt’s record as the highest-scoring Canadian player in a single tournament, first setting up an Ellis goal with the man advantage and then converting on a beautiful cross-ice pass in his own right. Mark Visentin handled the puck with aplomb and turned aside everything directed at him.
Scoring chances piled up, from a variety of players: a Kassian backhand here, a Johansen deflection there. Along the way, Carter Ashton scored a truly remarkable goal with almost no space at all.
Things started to turn in the second period, as Canada’s dominance gave way to more tentative play. Ryan Ellis fell into the boards awkwardly and struggled through the remainder of his shift; he would return but stopped being the difference maker he had been early on, though of course it is hard to determine whether that was a consequence of the injury or whether he simply slowed along with the rest of the team.
The power play, so effective in the first period, struggled to generate chances. Mark Visentin was called upon to stop a shorthanded breakaway. Still, despite the disappearance of Canadian dominance, the Russians were unable to seize the game themselves. Things still appeared relatively calm, and when Russian star Vladimir Tarasenko took a skate to the head while trying to poke the puck out of his own end – staying down for some time – it was easy to think the Russians wouldn’t wake up, or wouldn’t be able to do much even if they did.
Then things went sideways in the third. In a 13-second span, Visnetin surrendered two goals while veteran defencemen (Cowen in the first instance, Ellis in the second) watched impotently. The Russians poured the pressure on, skating the puck into the Canadian end where they’d struggled to clear their own zone previously. Finally, Yevgeni Kuznetsov made a brilliant pass despite tight checking that found the stick of Tarasenko.
In front of Tarasenko, defenceman Jared Cowen was caught flat-footed and he did all he had time for – dropped to the ice to block the shot. Tarasenko had the puck off his stick and behind Visentin before Cowen hit the ice. Canadian coach Dave Cameron, who had elected not to use his time-out when the score was 3-2, used it then to calm down his charges, though to little avail.
Time passed, and as the third period approached its final quarter, Canadian forward Louis LeBlanc made an unfortunate choice, dumping the puck into the offensive zone from the wrong side of centre ice. The fourth line was forced back to their own end, where they found themselves unable to clear.
Errors abounded; even the normally solid Erik Gudbranson coughed up the puck to the opposition. The fourth line, along with Gudbranson and Simon Despres, never cleared the zone but instead watched the Russians score the go-ahead goal.
The minutes ticked down, and the Canadians found themselves painfully unable to replicate their early-game success. They began taking more chances, attempting to tie things up before the clock ran out. Those efforts ended in disaster, as the puck came out of the offensive zone.
Tyson Barrie, who had made a spectacular diving poke check earlier in the game, desperately tried to make it back but couldn’t close the gap with Russian Nikita Dvurechenski. Dvurechenski had no trouble putting the insurance marker past the clearly rattled Visentin, and Canada’s three goal lead had become a two-goal deficit.
The uncontainable jubilation on the Russian bench started even before the final seconds ran out on the clock, and stood in stark contrast to the reaction of the Canadian players. This is a team doomed to be remembered as a failure, this game as one of the worst collapses in Canadian hockey history, but there could be no doubting the desire of the players involved.
Anger, sadness, devestation, bitterness: to a man, the players sporting Canada’s colours reflected some mixture of those emotions. I saw a group of very young men crushed, because they failed to live up to the lofty expectations inherent to the Team Canada jersey.
And that’s what I’ll remember. These players gave their best, but still lost to a talented – though almost certainly inferior foe. There was no failure of will, no loss of desire, nothing save perhaps a complacency bred of excellence, followed by desperation as things went south, both of which led to a series of on-ice errors. Despite those errors, I can’t help but feel empathy for this team, and a hope that fans don’t condemn them too severely.
Besides, our condemnation can’t possibly compare to that inflicted by those players upon themselves.