Canada and Russia will meet on the final day of the World Junior Hockey Championship, but the circumstances are far different from what either side expected.
With two lineups bolstered by NHL-caliber talent and gold-medal-or-bust hopes upon arriving in Ufa, Russia, both clubs stunningly stumbled after duking it out in the "group of death" preliminary round. The Canadians steamrolled opponents en route to sweeping the group and earning an automatic bye to the semifinal, while the Russians survived a quarterfinal scare from Switzerland and earned a date with Sweden in the semis.
The results that followed were -- to say the least -- unexpected.
Team USA, fresh off a quarterfinal win over the Czech Republic, managed to handily knock off Canada even though the Americans were playing their sixth game in eight days. Jake McCabe scored a pair of goals in the first period, and the U.S. eventually chased Malcolm Subban in the second period on their way to a 5-1 victory.
Russia, with high expectations as the host country and an improved style more suitable to the international game, saw its gold medal hopes end in a shootout loss to Sweden. The Russians clawed back from an early 2-0 deficit , tied the game in the third period, but could not convert a gift-wrapped power play chance in overtime.
Disappointment was the prevailing emotion following Canada's semifinal loss, generating a lot of reflection on one of their sloppiest performances in recent memory.
"When you look at it, it probably comes down to the start," Canada head coach Steve Spott told TSN. "We didn't have the start that we wanted, and obviously, gave the Americans a lot of time and space with the puck. I think the word today was 'reactionary'; we weren't on the puck like we were against the Russians...and that got us in a hole we weren't able to recover from.
"But ultimately, the legs simply weren't there in the first period and that cost us. It's tough, but we now have a chore to do and we still have a medal on the line. Now our job as a staff is to get them back up, and make sure we bring a medal back home for Canada."
And that next job is their most difficult; Canada was so dominant in its first four games and after beating Russia, seemed like it was on the fast track to the gold medal game with aspirations of ending a four-year gold medal drought. Team USA won gold in 2010 in Saskatoon, and ever since, the Canadians have strangely struggled in a format they typically dominate.
But this year, Blue Jackets prospect Boone Jenner and the Canadians ran into a red-hot United States squad that refused to go away and only got better as the tournament progressed, in the end spelling doom for a team that saw its worst performance come at the worst possible time.
Spott said rekindling the competitive fire that was extinguished after the semifinal loss is the only way Canada can leave Russia with a medal.
"It's finding that inner drive within themselves, but that's something they have to appreciate now -- how important that medal is," Spott said. "We'll let them decompress a little bit and we'll meet again tomorrow and talk about that."