Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Canada to defend gold medal in Junior finale

Team Canada no longer qualifies as the underdog at the World Junior Championships, with a convincing 4-0 defeat of Finland on Tuesday night, the Canadians advanced to the Gold Medal match for the fifth straight year. Set to defend their Gold Medal championship of 2005 on Thursday night against a familiar foe, the Russian juniors.

Justin Pogge picked up his second shutout of the tournament, turning aside 19 shots as Canada played text book Sutter hockey, playing the man, reducing the turnovers and taking advantage of the scoring opportunities as they became available.

This Team Canada certainly takes the team approach to heart, rarely out of position, there are no real me first players in the line up, Canadians never ventured too far up the official scoring standings in the tournament, keeping to the defensive style of play designed by Sutter and spreading out the scoring among the many forwards and defensemen brought to the training camp.

The win was Brent Sutters 11th straight World Junior victory, undefeated in International play, it's a mark that puts him at the top of the winningest Junior coaches list all by himself. A hard task master at times, he seems to be able to seek out the commitment from his charges and get them to play the style of hockey that Canadians have become know for. Hard aggressive in your face kind of play, with solid defense and impressive goaltending when required.

Finland's goaltender Tuuka Rusk faced 43 shots in the defeat, 20 hours after he faced 53 shots from Team Sweden, suffice to say defensive play is not a strength that the Finns have grabbed onto just yet. Interestingly enough for Toronto Maple Leaf fans, both Pogge and Rusk have been drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs, giving them a pretty impressive looking tandem a few years down the line.

Finland will take on the USA in the Bronze medal game, after the Americans were out hit and out scored by a well rested Russian squad. The Russians put five goals behind American Goaltender Cory Schneider, though to be fair to the American he was left on his own far too often to face a heavily talented Russian squad. The US defencemen tried their best to stem the flow of the Russian attack, but with sloppy and at times non existent back checking from their forwards they were far too often out numbered in their own end.

The Americans appeared to run out of steam at key times, owing in part to their need to go through the quarter finals against the Czech Republic on Monday night. They never seemed to have much jump in the Russian match up, frequently beat to the puck and guilty of sloppy passing and confusing play in their own end at times.

The game deteriorated towards the end as both teams seemed to be more interested in running each other into the boards and taking cheap shots, than in finishing the game off in any kind of offensive showcase.

At one point things threatened to get out of hand as the players clutched, grabbed and pushed around Russian goaltender Anton Khudobin's crease area, but eventually cooler heads prevailed and the game ended at a score of 5-1, without further incident.

The Vancouver crowd appeared to be heavily pro Russia on this night, something not seen very often in a Canadian arena. The main target of the fan's wrath was American defenceman Jack Johnson who plays with a fair amount of attitude. Most recently involved in a last minute incident with Canadian Steve Downie, Johnson heard boos for the bulk of the evening every time he touched the puck. The crowd would cheer loudly each Russian goal and gave the popular Na na na song serenade to the Americans as the game wound down.

While one can understand the crowd cheering on the Russians who play a wonderful style of hockey, the unseemly anti Americanism at times seems a tad bush league. The Americans after all play pretty well the closest style of hockey that Canadians would recognize, to boo them constantly and cheer the huge hits on some of their finesse players doesn't quite seem to be the timbre of a true hockey fan. One day we'll just have to get over our various complexes in regards to our neighbour to the south and accept a hockey game for what it is, just a great example of two styles of hockey clashing on the ice. In the end, an awful lot of Canadians earn a living playing our game in American cities, to boo them as we did in this tournament doesn't seem to say very much about us as hockey fans.

The loss will be a bitter disappointment to the American side, which had come into the competition perceived as one of the favourites. And as the tournament got underway the positive press reports proved to be true as the Americans dominated most of the competition, however a turning point came with a 2-2 tie against the Swiss and then the loss to Canada on New Year's eve.

The Canada/Russia match up is probably the best scenario TSN could have hoped for, though to be honest either an American or Russian match up against Team Canada would have proven to be a ratings winner. Saturday nights Canada - USA game topped the ratings over even Hockey Night in Canada. The renewed rivalry between Canada and Russia though will make Thursday night just a little bit extra special and probably reward TSN with another excellent night. It will make for an interesting comparison of styles the free wheeling, fast breaking Russians against the defensive minded and tough hitting Canadian team.

Strap on your helmet and settle in, this one could be a beauty!

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