It was another world junior hockey championship classic for the ages.
After a five-year gold medal drought Canada is once again on top of the junior hockey world, hanging on through a tense third period to defeat Russia 5-4 and become the 2015 champions.
The game's fate appeared to already be decided only 12:30 into the second period when Canada's Sam Reinhart scored to make it 5-1, but Russia stormed back, scoring three unanswered goals in the final six minutes of the period, cutting the deficit to 5-4 and silencing the stunned Canadian home crowd of over 19000 fans.
That would be as close as the Russians got, however, as Canada fought relentlessly for every last puck in the third period, controlling the play just long enough to preserve the win.
"We’re World Junior champions," said Canadian forward McDavid, who scored a dazzling breakaway goal in the second period. "It’s joy. Right now, this is just absolute joy."
"This is amazing," added captain Curtis Lazar. "I really wanted to help Canada get back on top, and everyone did their part. I was just along for the ride. We had the momentum; we let it slip away a little bit, but we hung in there."
Toronto native and Arizona Coyotes 2013 1st rounder Max Domi scored a goal and added two assists in front of dozens of family and friends in attendance, while Anthony Duclair and Nick Paul had the other Canadian goals. Zach Fucale made 26 saves in net, 11 of which came in the third period while protecting the one-goal lead.
It was a heartbreaking ending for Russia. The Russians eliminated two of the best teams in the tournament in the United States and Sweden to advance to the gold medal game, and then fought back valiantly in the second period when all hope seemed lost, but ultimately fell painstakingly short in the finale.
"It was 5-4," said a dejected Nikolai Goldobin. "Just one goal. And we had the whole third period to score. We started pretty badly. We allowed two goals, weak goals. But we have a great team."
Goldobin, Sergei Tolchinski, Ivan Barbashyov and Dmitri Yudin were the scorers for the silver-medalist Russians. Starting goalie Igor Shestyorkin was pulled almost immediately after puck drop after allowing two goals in the first 2:32.
It was the fifth year in a row where Russia took home a medal, improving upon their bronze from last year's event.
Canada couldn't have asked for a better start to the game, with Duclair scoring only 23 seconds in and then Paul doubling the lead a mere two minutes later, sending the Canadian crowd into a frenzy. The Canadians led 2-1 to begin the second period but didn't hesitate to pad their lead, extending it all the way to 5-1.
If the Russians were fazed at this point they certainly didn't show it on the ice. Russia had been playing aggressively and physically all game long and were rewarded at 14:21 when St. Louis Blues prospect Ivan Barbashyov banged home a loose puck while crashing Fucale's crease. The goal halted the premature Canadian celebration and tilted the ice in Russia's favor for the remainder of the frame, with two more goals immediately following to make the game close again.
Flashes of the 2011 world juniors started to creep into the minds of Canadians. That was the last time that the two teams met each other in the gold medal game, which coincidentally was also played on January 5th, when Russia erased a 3-0 deficit to come back and beat Canada 5-3.
Canada would get their revenge last night, however, by being the better team in the third period and sealing the deal. Russia generated a few chances in the dying minutes but was unable to crack a team-wide Canadian defense that was nearly impenetrable all tournament.
Domi, Reinhart and defenseman Darnell Nurse were named Canada's top players for the event. Nurse, who played some amazing defense while protecting the Canadian lead, was also named player of the game for his team.
McDavid, the 17 year-old phenom that is favored to go 1st overall in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, lived up to his enormous pre-tournament hype and then some, finishing tied with Reinhart and Domi for the scoring lead with 11 points in seven games.
The Canada-Russia gold medal thriller wasn't the only exciting hockey game of the day, with Slovakia forcing one of the biggest upsets in recent world junior history by beating Sweden 4-2 to win bronze.
Undrafted Slovakian goaltender Denis Godla continued the most magical run of his hockey career, stopping 26 out of 28 shots to lead his team to victory. Not only did he get voted by the media as the best goaltender this year, but he was also voted as the entire tournament's Most Valuable Player, joining a prestigious club that also includes names like John Tavares, Carey Price and Zach Parise.
"Godla is an amazing guy," gushed Slovakian teammate Samuel Petras. "He has a lot of luck but he's very good. Everybody likes him. He's our hero. He's a rock star. He's everything for us, our god. We can pray to him because he's awesome."
It was the first medal that Slovakia has won in the tournament since taking bronze all the way back in 1999.
"It will help our younger players to think they can win big games like this," said captain Martin Reway. "We have to start thinking positively so we can be one of the top teams."
For Sweden, it was the second crushing defeat in just 24 hours after their loss to Russia on Sunday cost them the chance to play for gold. Sweden had a perfect record and was flying through the tournament right up to the Russia game, a loss that they appeared to not be fully recovered from on Monday.
"It feels terrible right now," said Swedish defenseman Gustav Forsling. "If we played our best hockey, we’d beat them every day of the week. So it’s not good."
The loss snapped a three year medal-winning streak for Sweden, who were also upset by Finland in last year's gold medal game.
Monday was a perfectly-fitting ending to another wonderful world juniors, a tournament that is rapidly growing in popularity thanks to it's blazing pace of action, wild momentum swings, stunning upsets and amazing individual heroics. This year once again featured all of this, and so much more. Hockey fans from all over the world, but especially in hockey-crazed, gold-winning Canada, will wake up Tuesday morning and exhale a breath that is part relief, but also part sadness that it's all over. At least for now.
See you all next year.