If the NHL doesn't want to send its players to the Olympics, how about holding the World Junior Championship there? (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
When Canada needed to lock down the Russians in the third period, they did. But the flashy lightning strikes that staked them to a permanent lead early on were the result of passion and confidence
The stereotypical Canadian hockey player is humble, sometimes to a fault. But this year's edition of the world junior team wanted to be different, going way back to the summer: They wanted to bring some swagger back to a program that had not won gold since 2009 and now, they have done it.
It all started with Max Domi, an emotional catalyst all tournament, and Anthony Duclair sparring with their Russian counterparts before the opening puck was even dropped and 23 seconds in, Duclair had Canada up 1-0 on Russia with a quick-strike goal. Nick Paul increased the lead two minutes later and the Air Canada Centre was a madhouse. But that opening salvo turned out to be crucial, as the Russians clawed back, eventually falling just 5-4. Swagger paid off.
“Crazy. Perfect," said Connor McDavid. "It was exactly what we needed, a quick jolt of confidence and energy. That was a great way to start a game.”
For the phenom prospect who will almost certainly go No. 1 overall in the NHL draft this summer, the foaming aggressiveness of Domi and Duclair was just as important as the actual early goal.
“When you see two of your leaders really battling and the play hasn't even started yet, it shows what kind of game it's going to be and the attitude this team had," McDavid said. "It was great to see.”
There was definitely a brashness to this team and not in a bad way. Duclair has been with the New York Rangers all season, while captain Curtis Lazar was loaned out by the Ottawa Senators. Many of the players were first-round draft picks and on paper, this team should have won. But it's never that easy in junior hockey. It would have been easy for this squad to be uniform and buttoned-down, but in a game where the Russians were bigger and the Canadians faster for once, firewagon hockey and a little bit of cockiness saved the day.
“Absolutely," said Vancouver first-rounder Jake Virtanen. "On the bench, even the coaches were confident. From start to finish we had a lot of swagger throughout the tournament and never gave up on each other, that was important.”
Of course, that third period came down to defense and Buffalo lottery pick Sam Reinhart was devastating in the faceoff circle, particularly in the last minute. Columbus prospect Dillon Heatherington did fantastic work on the back end, just not the sort of things producers pick for highlight reels. Edmonton pick Darnell Nurse was a blueline beast.
“The last period we were more defensive than offensive," Virtanen said. "We weren't really worried about scoring except if it was there; we didn't risk anything.”
So locking it down was the mission in the third and rightly so. But Canada doesn't have a lead to protect if the squad doesn't come out flying and where there could have been jitters and nerves, there was instead fire and swashbuckling. Just as Lazar had wanted when the team was in its infancy during summer training camp.
“I knew from the get-go with this group we had that we weren't going to be stopped," he said. "Regardless of the adversity we were going to face, we were going to win this tournament. To end the streak of Canada not being on top? It's big. We can call this game ours - and what a way to do it.”