UFA, Russia — This wasn’t your lockout team of 1995 or 2005, but much more was expected at the 2013 world junior hockey championship of a Canadian team bolstered by the absence of the NHL.
Canada’s coach and players were blunt after Saturday’s bronze-medal loss to Russia, calling their fourth-place finish “unacceptable.”
It was the first time since 1998 that a Canadian team left the tournament without medals around their necks, ending a streak of 14 straight podiums.
“I have the rest of my life to think on this and it’s not going to be easy,” Canadian head coach Steve Spott said.
A motivated Russian team, which hosted the tournament for the first time since 2001, defeated Canada 6-5 in overtime in Saturday’s third-place game.
The United States, which beat Canada 5-1 in the semifinals, won gold with a 3-1 victory over Sweden. It was major turnaround from the Americans, who finished seventh at the 2012 tournament.
The Canadians lost the bronze-medal game and the semifinal to countries they had beaten in the preliminary round.
“As Canadians, we can’t come here and not win a medal,” forward Jonathan Huberdeau said.
Unlike other years, when some NHL clubs don’t make their teenagers available to the Canadian team, this edition had access to the country’s best 19-year-old talent because of the NHL lockout, minus one defenceman and one forward lost to injury prior to the tournament.
Hopes of a gold medal after three years of the lesser medals were high because of the inclusion of Edmonton Oilers centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, as well as players such as Huberdeau, Ryan Strome, Mark Scheifele and Dougie Hamilton, who would have been in the NHL this season if not for the lockout.
There were six returning from the squad that won bronze in 2012 in Calgary.
Nugent-Hopkins led the tournament in points with four goals and 11 assists in six games. The Canadian captain was named the tournament’s top forward by the International Ice Hockey Federation directorate, as well as to the all-star team.
So what went wrong?
It was a sign the 1993 birth year was not deep in talent when a pair of 17-year-old forwards were named to the team in a lockout year.
For the second year in a row, Canada failed to take advantage of the bye to the semifinal and ended the tournament with losses to two countries that both played quarter-finals.
After leading the preliminary round in scoring, the firepower Canada had went silent in the semifinal. While the Canadians scored four power-play goals Saturday, they had just two at even-strength in their final two games.
The world junior hockey championship is unforgiving because of its compact schedule. After going 4-0 in the round-robin, 40 bad minutes against the Americans ended Canada’s gold-medal hopes. A soft start against the Russia made bronze an uphill climb.
Spott gave Jordan Binnington his first start of the tournament Saturday, but he gave up three goals on the first five shots he saw from Russia and was pulled for Malcolm Subban.
“Malcolm had a tough game where he had to come out against the Americans and we just thought Jordan would have that fire to compete and he did,” Spott said. “There were a couple goals that went by him and we had to make a tough decision.
“When Malcolm came in, I thought he calmed the ship down and allowed us to get back in the game.”
To their credit, the Canadians tied the bronze-medal three times to send it overtime, but Valerie Nichushkin scored the winner at 1:35 of the extra period in front of 7,617 at the Ufa Arena.
“Kind of disbelief, I think,” Strome said of his reaction. “Especially at this tournament now, we’re all teenagers and everyone can say how disappointed the country is, but there’s no one more disappointed than the guys in that room. No one cares more.”
Ufa was the longest trip a Canadian junior team has had to make to get to the tournament since 2001 in Moscow. Russia was the home team, but their quarter-final and semifinal both went to shootouts, so they had to go to the well to produce a medal Saturday.
Canada’s pre-tournament preparation in Finland had hitches. Spott summoned forward Mark McNeill, one of the players he’d cut at selection camp, from Canada because of a back injury to Charles Hudon.
Defenceman Ryan Murray, the No. 2 pick in this year’s NHL draft who also played for Canada in 2012, suffered a shoulder injury prior to selection camp.
Suspensions were the theme for Canada at this tournament. Boone Jenner sat out the first three games, JC Lipon was banned one game and defenceman Griffin Reinhart served the first of a four-game suspension Saturday.
He’s among five players eligible to play for Canada again at the 2014 world junior championship in Malmo, Sweden, so he’d have to serve the remainder of his punishment there.
Forwards Jonathan Drouin and Nathan MacKinnon, the 17 year olds, defenceman Morgan Rielly and alternate goaltender Jake Patterson are also eligible to play for Canada in at the 2014 tournament, as is Hudon. Drouin raised his stock for the next NHL draft with his speed and smarts.
The 2013 junior team will suffer greatly by comparison to the 1995 and 2005 teams that dominated en route to gold in lockout years.
“Not getting a medal is going to be tough, especially being a part of it,” Nugent-Hopkins said.