The 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship gold medal game is officially set.
Canada and Russia will face each other on Monday night to see which hockey nation will be crowned champion at this year's tournament. It will be a rematch of the 2011 event in hosted in Buffalo, when Russia defeated Canada 5-3 to win gold. It was the last time that Russia finished first, and also the last year that Canada played in the final game.
Both teams were propelled into the finals this year thanks to huge wins on Sunday. Russia stunned Sweden with a 4-1 victory, while Canada rolled over Slovakia 5-1.
Russia has been wildly inconsistent all tournament long, but played what was easily their best game yet against Sweden in yesterday's semifinals. The Russians were fast and aggressive from the get go, and it appeared to throw Sweden, who had been perfect up to this point, off of their game. Sweden's offense, which had been scoring prolifically all tournament, dried up, only mustering 27 shots on net.
"We had a couple of pretty hard games against the U.S. and Sweden," said Russian forward Ivan Barbashyov. "We know how to play, and we’ll be playing the same way we played today and two days ago."
"It's a great feeling," added defenseman Rinat Valiev. "I've been wanting this all my life. I'm pretty excited."
Forward Alexander Sharov led the way with two goals. Sweden's Lucas Wallmark gave his team hope in the third period, scoring a goal to cut the Russian lead to 3-1, but Maxim Mamin only a minute afterwards to zap any momentum that the Swedes had gained.
This year will be the first time in three years that Sweden won't be playing in the gold medal game, after winning it in 2012 and then settling for silver in 2013 and 2014.
"We didn’t play our best hockey," said Swedish captain Jacob de la Rose. "It’s sad in a big game like this."
Russia will have their hands full, however, against a Canadian team that has been dominant since the start of the tournament and is still finding ways to get better.
Winnipeg Jets prospect Nic Petan scored a hat trick, while Curtis Lazar and Connor McDavid each added three assists in a game that was more lopsided than the score suggests. Canada outshot Slovakia 44-15, including a flurry of Grade A scoring chances in the third period.
"It was one of those nights when pucks were just finding me," Petan said, as quoted by the event's official website. "I felt I was skating well, and I got some good passes from McDavid."
"He was unbelievable," McDavid said of Petan. "Just give him the puck, and he finds a way to put it in the net. He's a great player."
"I think they just punished all our mistakes," said Slovakian captain Martin Reway. "I knew it was going to be like this, but we can’t just play the way we did today. It’s pretty hard for us to play against them. Mistakes happen, but we can’t do that in the semi-finals. It’s going to cost us the game, as you saw.
Canada started the game a little slow, and there were some nervous times while they were leading only 1-0 heading late into the second period, but those nerves were more than erased by the end of the game. Canada was absolutely flying in the third period, and propelled by the home crowd, seems to be riding a tidal wave of momentum into what should be a raucous arena today.
Despite the loss, Slovakia is likely still thrilled with how their tournament is going overall. The nation has not won a medal at this tournament since taking bronze in 1999, and will have an opportunity to do so again against Sweden.
Slovakian goaltender Denis Godla was otherworldly in the game, making 39 saves, many of them of the highlight-reel variety. The Canadian crowd at the Air Canada Centre let out a loud "Goalie!" chant during the post-game ceremonies and gave Godla a thunderous round of applause.
What's Up Next
This is it. The final two games of this year's tournament will go down today (times listed in Central Time)
- Sweden versus Slovakia for bronze at 3:00 PM: Slovakia couldn't force the upset against Canada, but can they do it against Sweden? If Godla plays again like he did yesterday then they'll certainly have a good chance. The Swedes are likely still reeling a bit, but will be intent on extending their medal streak at this year's tournament to four years. Their loss yesterday against Russia was uncharacteristic of how they've played overall so far, so Sweden will definitely come into this game as the favorites.
- Canada versus Russia for gold at 7:00 PM: At this point, this game is Canada's to lose. They've been by far and away the best team all tournament long, and have been getting contributions from every aspect of their roster. That being said, you can never count out Russia, as shown by their upset over Sweden. They have more than enough skill and depth to put up one heck of a fight, and have a goaltender that can steal games. By all indications, this match has all the potential to become an instant classic.