BUFFALO, N.Y. — Yevgeni Kuznetsov and his Russian teammates at the world junior hockey championship know exactly what’s coming from Canada, and believe they are ready for the challenge in Wednesday’s gold-medal match.
“When they play against our team they usually have big spirit, they are ready for hard hits and so on,” the Washington Capitals first-round pick last summer said through an interpreter after a loose, relaxed practice Tuesday. “When Canada and the United States play against each other, I don’t think it’s a great atmosphere like games against Russia.”
While Kuznetsov’s last point may be up for debate, there’s no arguing the long and storied hockey history the two rivals share, and both are eager to provide another chapter of lore for their fans.
The Russians, back in the junior final for the first time since 2007, will face a Canadian team that has, in part, been finding inspiration in the 1972 Summit Series.
Canadian defenceman Erik Gudbranson, for one, plans to watch Paul Henderson’s series-winning goal in his hotel room before he leaves for the title game, and always ponders a quote from a vanquished Soviet posted in the team’s dressing room.
“The Russian, I forget what his name is, talks about how Canadians don’t stop,” said Gudbranson. “I read that quote before every game to make sure that’s instilled in my brain.
“It shows that we don’t give up, that we expect nothing but excellence and that we’re going to strive for that.”
Playing with that level of hunger allowed the Canadians to run the overmatched Americans out of the rink in Monday’s semifinals, and the Russians will need to be ready to answer that at an HSBC Arena papered over by fans in Canada red.
Despite being played in the United States, this has essentially been a home tournament for the Canadians, and Kuznetsov believes that gives them the edge.
“Obviously Canada is the favourite for (the) game because they play really like at home, with a full crowd that is supporting them,” he said. “But in Russia people are expecting a gold for us, so we will do our best to bring gold to Russia.”
The Russians, of course, already had a taste of what to expect during a tournament opening 6-3 loss to Canada. They’ve changed many things since then, replacing Igor Bobkov with the steady Dmitri Shikin in goal, and juggling all four lines en route to an upset, shootout win over Sweden in the semis.
The Swedes were caught off-guard and struggled as the Russians played a tight neutral-zone trap. Head coach Valeri Bragin said the dramatic quarter-final win over Finland, when Kuznetsov erased a 3-1 deficit with a goal and an assist with less than four minutes left before scoring the OT winner, had forced his hand against Sweden.
He was coy when asked if more trapping was in store for Canada.
“We shall see but I don’t think so right now,” he said through an interpreter. “Our team was tired after the game against Finland so that’s why we chose such a plan, just because Team Sweden is fast, a very skilful team so don’t give them enough space in the neutral zone.”
The Swedes were most effective against Russia when they dumped the puck in and laid the body on the defenceman, a Canadian speciality.
There was lots of that in the dismantling of the Americans, a game that the Russians watched and took notes from. Kuznetsov, for one, didn’t come away particularly impressed with Canada.
“I’m not sure if Canada was so strong or just United States was not ready for the game,” he said. “We expected a more close fight.”
The Russians are promising to give them one.
“It’s always interesting, it’s a battle at different levels,” said defenceman Nikita Pivtsakin. “I think all the hockey world will follow (Wednesday’s) game.”