For two periods, Russia dominated Canada. But a reversal of fortunes in the third saw Canada turn the game around to book a place in its third successive final. Russia, defeated 2-4, goes on to Sunday’s bronze-medal game.
It felt like a long time since Russia got the better of its greatest hockey foe … and after a memorable encounter, absorbing for the neutral, it will feel even longer for the raucous Russian support that flocked to Cologne for this World Championship semi-final.
Second-period goals from Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nikita Gusev gave the Red Machine a 2-0 lead and, with Canada looking oddly disjointed, victory seemed well within reach. But it all went wrong. Canada got a goal back early in the third and powered to victory on three goals in the last five minutes.
After the game, the faces of Russia’s players told the story more eloquently than the words of the few who paused in the mixed zone. Shock and misery was carved deeply into the features of a team that knew how close it had come to a famous victory. Answers, delivered sotto voce, tended to begin “I don’t know ...”, “I can’t say ...”
Sergei Andronov summed up the mood. “We know we blew a big chance,” he said. “It hurts. It hurts for us and it hurts for the fans who have been crazy here.”
The first period was cagey; two heavyweights prowling the ring, eyeing up the opposition, looking for a chink in the armor. But rather than scoring chances, it was big hits that got the crowd excited, with CSKA’s Andronov singled out for some particular attention from Travis Konecny and Brayden Schenn.
Perhaps most importantly, though, Russia did not take a single penalty in the opening stanza. Aside from denying Canada’s imposing power play a chance to strut its stuff, this also underpinned an enhanced level of discipline from Oleg Znarok’s team after spending too long in the box for comfort in recent games. This time, though, it was Canada that picked up the unnecessary indiscretions and played itself into trouble.
Gradually, discipline began to deliver. If the previous meeting between this two nations, in Prague in the 2015 final, was characterized by the Canadian offense slicing through Russia’s back line, here the reverse was true. Once the Russian passing game got into gear, the impact was devastating. First it was the team’s NHL combination – Nikita Kucherov to Artemy Panarin, then on to Evgeny Kuznetsov all alone on Calvin Pickard’s doorstep with plenty of time to tap into an empty net in the 33rd minute.
Canada, rattled, took another penalty and duly paid the price. This time it was something of an old-SKA reunion; former Petersburg favorite Panarin switching play for Vadim Shipachyov, who duly fed Nikita Gusev. Panarin’s replacement at SKA didn’t make the cleanest of contact with his shot, but did enough to force it past Pickard and double Russia’s lead.
Then it all went wrong for Russia. Seconds into the final stanza, Mark Scheifele got a goal back for the Canadians. A seemingly comfortable path to victory was at once strewn with obstacles. Russia ran into penalty trouble – an abrupt reversal from the second period – and gradually Canada’s pressure told. Nate MacKinnon tied the game with five to play, capitalizing after Vladimir Tkachyov missed his chance to move the puck to safety and sudden Russia was looking at a result that would be memorable for all the wrong reasons.
A couple of minutes later and it was 3-2 Canada. Ryan O’Reilly claimed the game winner, snaffling a rebound after his initial shot was blocked by Ivan Provorov. Russia’s dream was in tatters, and Sean Couturier read the last rites with an empty netter to make it 2-4.
Jubilant Canadian head coach Jon Cooper hailed it as “one of the greatest hockey games I’ve ever been involved in” and spoke warmly of Russia’s performance. But for Russia’s Oleg Znarok, reflecting on his third international loss against Canada, there was little to say. “I’ve no complaints about my guys,” he commented. “They battled from the first minute to the last but the luck didn’t go with us. That’s sport.”