Thomas scores winner as Canada beats Russia for gold at world juniors

OSTRAVA, Czech Republic — Canada is golden again at the world junior hockey championship.

Akil Thomas scored with 3:58 left in the third period to cap a furious comeback and secure a 4-3 victory over Russia on Sunday for the country’s 18th title at the annual under-20 tournament.

The Los Angeles Kings prospect stretched to grab a loose puck before roofing a backhand for his first goal of the event past Amir Miftakhov to send Ostravar Arena into a frenzy.

“It feels unbelievable. It’s been a long tournament,” said Thomas.

“We had a lot of adversity. Now for it to finally be over and to have gold medals around our necks, it feels unbelievable.”

Connor McMichael, with a goal and an assist, Dylan Cozens and Barrett Hayton, in a gutsy return from injury, provided the rest of the offence for Canada.

Joel Hofer, who wasn’t on Hockey Canada’s radar before the fall and started the event as the backup, got the win, while Alexis Lafreniere and Calen Addison each added two assists.

Grigori Denisenko, with a goal and an assist, Nikita Alexandrov and Maxim Sorkin replied for the Russians, who have now lost four finals since last winning gold in 2011. Miftakhov took the loss in goal.

Hayton, who entered Sunday tied for the tournament’s overall scoring lead with 11 points, hurt is left his shoulder in Saturday’s 5-0 drubbing of Finland, but was good to go against Russia. Bowen Byram, meanwhile, recovered from an illness that kept the defenceman sidelined for the semifinals.

“Definitely some pain, but when you’re out there you don’t really feel much, you just play,” said Hayton. ”You’re so much in the moment. You don’t really feel those injuries. It definitely feels good right now.”

Russia advanced to the final thanks to 5-4 overtime victory against Sweden, which beat Finland 3-2 for bronze earlier Sunday.

Canada, which had outscored opponents 22-5 over its last four games, fell behind 3-1 at 8:46 of the third when Sorkin roofed a shot upstairs.

But the Canadians responded 34 seconds later when Addison’s point shot went in off McMichael’s skate for his fifth of the tournament.

Canada went back on the power play with under nine minutes to go, and Hayton fired his sixth upstairs just 2:01 later before Akil scored to cap a three-goal flurry in six minutes 42 seconds.

The Canadians weren’t out of the woods, however, and had to fight off a 6-on-4 man advantage with under two minutes to go. Canada got lucky when a clearing attempt that appeared to hit a camera outside of play was not called for a delay of game penalty that would have given Russia a 6-on-3 situation with 1:47 remaining.

The Russians were whistled for interference shortly after, forcing Miftakhov back into his goal.

Russia imploded and took another penalty for playing with a broken stick as Canada ran out the clock with a 5-on-3 man advantage of its own before spilling off the bench in celebration.

After a scoreless penalty-filled first period where Canada killed of four Russian power plays, Alexandrov finally connected on his team’s sixth man advantage when he tipped Yegor Zamula’s point shot through Hofer’s five-hole for his second at 9:37 of the second.

The Canadians responded at 11:01 after two Russian players were whistled for infractions on the same play. Lafreniere wheeled into the high slot that Miftakhov stopped, but Cozens was there to bang home his second.

Canada stayed on the power play, with Joe Veleno coming close on a one-timer. Liam Foudy was then robbed on a 2-on-1 with the teams back at even strength.

Russia went back in front 2-1 at 5:14 left in the period when Alexander Romanov’s initial shot from the point rattled Hofer’s mask. The netminder couldn’t control the rebound, and Denisenko got two whacks at the loose puck to score his third.

Canada’s Jacob Bernard-Docker rocked Kirill Marachenko at the blue line late in the period, and the rough stuff continued at the buzzer when Zamula punched Hayton to put his team down a man heading to the third.

Russia killed that one off, and Miftahkov stopped McMichael on a breakaway moments later to set up the wild finish.

Canada earned its first medal in Europe since winning gold in 2008 when the Czech Republic last hosted. The Canadians finished a disappointing sixth on home soil last year when they were upset by Finland in the quarters.

The countries have provided some of the tournament’s most memorable moments — the 2005 gold-medal game featuring Canada’s jam-packed roster of future NHL stars, Jordan Eberle’s late equalizer in the 2009 semis and Russia’s furious comeback from down 3-0 in the third period to win the 2011 event — and Sunday didn’t disappoint.

Sporting its black third jerseys for a fourth straight game, Foudy hit the post less than a minute into a fast-paced, high-intensity first period before Canada got into some serious penalty trouble.

Veleno, Jared McIsaac, Ty Smith and Kevin Bahl each spent time in the box in a tightly-called opening 20 minutes, but Canada managed to kill off all four thanks to the calm, cool Hofer and some key blocked shots.

Canada battled adversity throughout the event, including an embarrassing 6-0 loss to Russia in the preliminary round, the national team’s worst defeat in the tournament’s 44-year history.

That game was a disaster on a number of levels, but the teenage roster with the weight of a nation’s expectation on their collective shoulders rebounded in impressive fashion.

The Canadians lost Lafreniere — its star winger and projected No. 1 pick at the 2020 NHL draft — to a knee injury, had to deal with the fallout of Hayton forgetting to remove his helmet during Russia’s anthem, and a one-game suspension handed to Veleno, its workhorse centre, for a head-butting incident.

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