Russia 2 Canada 1
BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — This learning experience was even more painful than the last one.
As Canada made its second straight quarter-final exit from the IIHF World Hockey Championship at the hands of Russia, the only similarity was the sight of players walking off the ice with heads bowed in disappointment.
But there was a much sicker feeling in their stomachs this time around, especially after marching through six round robin games with an unbeaten record and taking a lead to the third period of the do-or-die quarter-final.
“It’s disappointing to be out this early,” forward Jason Spezza said after Thursday’s 2-1 loss at Orange Arena.
“With the tournament we had as a team and how well we came together and how hard we worked, it just seems like it’s all to waste.”
A year ago, there were enough warning signs and injury concerns to predict the disappointing outcome. Coming just a few months after winning Olympic gold in Vancouver and with a new crop of players on the roster, it was easier to chalk that one up to inexperience.
Six of those men returned this year and became part of a tight-knit group that seemed destined for something better.
“Obviously, it’s very disappointing,” said John Tavares, who led the team with nine points in seven games. “Nothing less than gold is what we came here for and expect. Two years in a row for a few of us really sucks.
“It’s a tough feeling right now.”
The game was easily the most entertaining of a tournament that otherwise lacked drama during the quarter-finals. The Canadians and Russians went all out against each other, battling for loose pucks along the boards until blood was spilled — literally — on the ice.
A breakaway goal by Spezza in the second period gave Canada the lead it coveted heading to the final 20 minutes. But some loose defensive plays and a familiar nemesis in Ilya Kovalchuk undid a tournament’s worth of good work.
“Both teams played their hearts out,” said Canadian coach Ken Hitchcock. “We made a couple of mistakes and they ended up in our net.”
First Alex Kaigorodov tied it 1-1 on a short-handed breakaway at 9:07 of the third period, chipping the puck past pinching defenceman Brent Burns and around Spezza before beating Jonathan Bernier. Then Canada got running around in its own zone before Alexander Radulov found an Kovalchuk open in the high slot and the sniper buried his first of the tournament at 12:19.
“It doesn’t really matter for me ever who scores the goals,” said Kovalchuk. “We just want to win. We showed a lot of character. We recovered tonight.”
Three years ago in Quebec City, Kovalchuk scored his only two goals of the world championship against a Hithcock-led Canadian team in the gold-medal game — the first to tie it late and the second to win it in overtime.
After Thursday’s game, a Russian reporter asked the coach if Kovalchuk was giving him nightmares.
“He wasn’t much of a nightmare at the (Vancouver) Olympics,” Hitchcock responded.
Other than the brief lapse in the third period, the Canadians executed in virtually every way they wanted — getting off to a strong start, throwing lots of pucks at goaltender Konstantin Barulin and fighting for every inch of ice.
All of the signs of sacrifice that winning teams need were on display.
There were numerous blocked shots and players getting cuts patched up on the bench to facilitate a quick return to the ice. Andrew Ladd had his nose repaired after being hit from behind by Yevgeni Artyukhin while Marc Methot took a puck to the face after it rode up his stick.
“Typical Canada-Russia I think,” said Ladd. “It’s still tough to think about right now. Obviously coming here, you wanted to come back with the gold. Not doing that is pretty disheartening.”
Bernier earned his third straight start in goal after taking over from James Reimer. The Los Angeles Kings backup made 18 saves against Russia and couldn’t really be faulted for either shot that beat him.
“He gave us a great performance,” said Hithcock. “The three games he played, he played outstanding.”
In some ways, the Canadians were victims of bad luck.
Russia took some time to come together at this championship and suffered early losses to the Germans, Czechs and Finns. On the other side of the pool, Canada was passing every test it faced and secured the top seed — something that usually guarantees a weaker opponent than it ended up getting.
“Losing for us after playing so well hurts a little bit,” said Hitchcock. “We drew the bad straw here. I mean we drew a hell of a hockey club. They wanted to make amends, too, they haven’t played well in the tournament.
“They wanted to step up and play and they did.”
While Russia quickly started making preparations for Friday’s semifinal against Finland, Hockey Canada’s travel agent got to work on booking plane tickets home. The loss will guarantee Canada drops to at least third in the world rankings — and they could slip to fourth if Finland goes on to win gold over the weekend.
It’s not a place where the country expects to find itself.
“It was just a bad 10 minutes and it was unfortunate it was the last 10 minutes of the game,” said Nash. “It’s tough. It just shows at these tournaments it takes one game, one period, a couple minutes here and there and you can be out of it.”
Added defenceman Dion Phaneuf: “It’s an awful feeling. We came here to win and we came up short.”