If Canada needed a blueprint to beat Russia, it came a game too late, as Sweden showed how it’s done in the final game of the World Junior Championship in Calgary.
The Canucks instead settled for bronze, beating a Finnish team that improved vastly after losing to Canada 8-1 in the round robin, but the result was still a 4-0 shutout. And just as the Swedes could teach Canada a lesson, the Canadians took Finland to school by showing Suomi just how to play a gritty game to perfection.
The Finns appeared to be dark horses for gold in the tourney after their upset of Team USA in the round robin and the mixture of skill (Mikael Granlund, Joel Armia) and grit (Miikka Salomaki, Jani Hakanpaa) bode well for them. They looked to have the elements of many great Canadian junior teams, in fact. But you can’t out-Canuck the Canucks and a couple goals from Canada’s Barrie Colts connection of Tanner Pearson and Mark Scheifele put the game largely out of reach. At times, the Finns looked as if they would let their tempers get the best of them as several skirmishes came as near to fights as the medal round would see.
Though the Canadians will have remorse over the slow start and lack of physicality that doomed them against Russia in the semifinal, closing out the tournament with a win was admirable to see from a group accustomed to playing for gold.
“We wanted to go home with something,” said Brandon Gormley, a tournament all-star. “I thought we did a good job of coming out with the emotion that we needed to play with. We had the right battle level.”
The Swedes bested Russia by hemming in tournament MVP Evgeny Kuznetsov, outskating their opponent and pressuring at every juncture.
“It’s difficult to say anything,” Kuznetsov said. “The shots after two periods were something like 37-5. It would have been unfair for us to win.”
The fact Sweden had come back from three goals down to beat Russia at the end of the round robin stage of the tourney laid the foundation for Thursday’s 1-0 OT victory. A very specific strategy was drawn up and executed.
“We tried to forecheck hard and cover the boards with the two other guys,” said 2012 draft prospect Filip Forsberg. “And I think we had a lot of success with that during the game.”
And when necessary, the Swedes got great goaltending from Minnesota Wild prospect Johan Gustafsson, who had been only so-so in the tournament before the final. While his counterpart, Andrei Makarov, was peppered with shots all evening, Gustafsson had to bide his time and stay sharp despite the fact the first flurry of pucks he faced all night came in the third period. And with less than a minute remaining in regulation, he made a huge move to his left to repel a Russian tip-in on his doorstep by Nikita Gusev.
That stop enabled Sweden to take the game to overtime, where Ottawa Senators first-rounder Mika Zibanejad scooped up the puck off Nikita Kucherov at the Russian blueline and popped a backhander past Makarov just before defender Artem Sergeev could arrive at the scene. It earned Sweden just its second world junior gold and the first since 1981. More importantly for the kids involved, it proved a point.
“It means that we can win as well,” said Anaheim prospect and tournament all-star Max Friberg. “It’s not just Russia and Canada and the U.S. Sweden can win this tournament.”
And with Forsberg, Sebastian Collberg and several other marquee names eligible to return next year, a proper defense of the crown is assured when the tourney moves on to Ufa, Russia for 2013.
The 2012 World Junior Championship is in the books with Team Sweden winning gold, the Russians settling for silver and the Canadians earning the bronze. THN’s Ryan Kennedy was in Calgary and brings you post-game reactions from the Canadians and the Swedes.
Ryan Kennedy, the co-author of Young Guns II, is THN's associate senior writer and a regular contributor to THN.com. His column appears Wednesdays and The Hot List appears Tuesdays. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/THNRyanKennedy.