By Stephen Whyno, The Canadian Press
TORONTO – Fans at Air Canada Centre sweated through a tense first period and watched Slovak goaltender Denis Godla make save after save. By the time Canada’s world junior team pulled away in the third, the crowd was able to exhale and chant: “We Want Russia,” “We Want Gold” and even sing a full rendition of “O Canada.”
In beating Slovakia 5-1 Sunday night in the semifinals, Canada emerged from its first adversity of the tournament to reach the gold-medal game. The showdown with Russia is one the Canadians are more prepared for than they were through the first five games.
“We thought it was good for us to have that game tonight,” coach Benoit Groulx said. “You’ve got to know how to play in a tournament (in) that type of game. We kept our calm, we made some mistakes but I think we will learn from it.”
Canada learned any team is vulnerable to a hot goaltender in a single-elimination tournament as Godla was spectacular in stopping 39 of the 44 shots he faced. But Nic Petan had a hat trick, Shea Theodore and Anthony Duclair each added a goal, Connor McDavid recorded three assists and Zach Fucale made 14 saves to ensure the end of Canada’s world junior medal drought that dated back to 2012.
“This is something I dream of, getting this opportunity,” said McDavid, who insisted he was fine after colliding with linemate Curtis Lazar in the third period and hesitating to get up. “Have this in front of us tomorrow, can’t look too far ahead. You have a great Russian team ahead of us.”
Even though these are teenagers who weren’t even born when Russia was the Soviet Union, players know full well the history of the rivalry between these two countries. It will get another chapter Monday night.
“That rivalry that’s been together since the ’72 Summit Series that I’ve been told about and see highlights of all the time, it’s going to be something special,” defenceman Joe Hicketts said. “It’s an honour for me to get to wear the Maple Leaf in that game.”
Russian coach Valeri Bragin said facing Canada was “the best thing for all of the hockey community” and called Russia-Canada a “hockey classic.”
Canada will only get to take part in this classic final because it shook off some early struggles against Slovakia. Players knew their opponent would be much tougher than they were in an 8-0 rout on Boxing Day, and it took some time before Canada was able to assert its talent advantage and physical dominance.
“They hung around for a lot longer, I guess, than a lot of people would have expected,” defenceman Josh Morrissey said. “For us, we just kept going, we didn’t get frustrated. That was our main focus on the bench was not to get too frustrated and just play. We knew that if we kept doing the right things, they would come.”
They did, led by McDavid and Petan, who was bumped up to the second line and rewarded Groulx and his staff. Petan said it was an unbelievable feeling to see hats come down from many of the 18,002 in attendance, including his father.
Just a half-hour after Canada finished the job against Slovakia, the attention was already on Russia. The Russians, who beat Sweden earlier Sunday, are standing between Canada and its first gold medal in this tournament since 2009 in Ottawa.
“That’s going to be a tough game,” Russia’s Rinat Valiev said. “I saw a couple games, they’re very skilled. But we played against Canada before so I’m not scared to play against (them).”
Canada and Russia last met for gold in 2011 in Buffalo. Russian forward Ivan Barbashev said fans all over that country remember the comeback from down 3-0 for the 5-3 victory, a game Canadians would much rather forget.
“It was unreal,” Barbashev said. “We have a pretty good team this year and we can beat anyone.”
This was the first time in history Canada and Slovakia faced off in the world junior semifinals. When it was still a one-goal game 20 minutes in, Petan wasn’t surprised because he and his teammates were prepared for a tight matchup.
“Some teams do take teams lightly,” Petan said. “The biggest thing was not taking them lightly. After the first game obviously they got better on in the tournament.”
This is a better Canadian team, too, even though Petan called the first period the worst of the tournament. After being tied in shots 6-6, Canada put 38 on net to Slovakia’s nine the rest of the way.
By the time Duclair scored early in the third, there was a palpable sense of relief in the arena. Petan completing the hat trick began the series of chants that Morrissey could only describe as “inspiring.”
Canada hopes to have an inspired performance Monday night against Russia with a chance to make history.
“We have to understand that maybe we didn’t play as well as we wanted to today,” Hicketts said. “(Against Russia) we know we’re going to have to play a complete 60 minutes of hard-hitting and fast Canadian hockey.”
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