Playing without the puck and withstanding barrage after barrage of quality shots in your own end of the rink is rarely a sound strategy in ice hockey. But if your team has a transcendent or hot goaltender and the opposition has more diversity and firepower than you believe you can possibly handle, it's a strategy that can sometimes win you one game.
One game is all Russia needed to win.
Playing without center Pavel Datsyuk, Team Russia appeared to subscribe to the aforementioned ploy on Saturday in Toronto in the semifinal of the 2016 World Cup of Hockey against super-powered Team Canada. Predictably, the gambit didn't pay off, as Canada prevailed 5-3.
But for 40 minutes, 40 teeth-gnashing minutes for Canadian supporters, it looked as though goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky and his Russian teammates might slink out of Air Canada Centre and into the Toronto night with an improbable victory.
It took four unanswered Canadian strikes over a span of 11 minutes and 46 seconds - starting with Brad Marchand's game-tying tally late in the second period - to finally put Bobrovsky and the Russians away.
Marchand scored the tying goal for Canada, and he netted the goal that put them ahead for good, too.
"It's been a whirlwind here," says Marchand, "being part of a group like this at this level has been special. But anytime you play in a game of that magnitude and you're able to win, it's an incredible feeling. I'm still trying to take in everything, and it's been a blast so far."
From the start of the contest, the Canadians came into the Russian end of the ice in waves. Bobrovsky more than held up his end, making save after save, keeping his team within a tally of Team Canada.
Russia had a couple of early chances to grab a lead, getting the game's first two power play chances. But it was Team Canada that had the best scoring opportunities while Russia enjoyed the man advantage. Bobrovsky had to make strong stops on Brad Marchand, Logan Couture and Shea Weber while his team was on the power play. None of Russia's extra-man chances were as good as any of those three shorthanded bids from Canada.
In between those two Russian power plays, Canada jumped out to a 1-0 lead. Sidney Crosby picked the pocket of Russia defenseman Dmitry Kulikov near the left wing circle, then cut to the net, patiently pulled Bobrovsky out of position and lifted a backhander over him for a 1-0 Canada lead at 7:40 of the first.
Bobrovsky and the Russian penalty killers then kept their team within a goal with some strong work late in the frame during a span in which the Russians were whistled for three minor penalties in a span of just five minutes and 24 seconds.
At the start of the second, it was more of the same. Bobrovsky was under siege, and the Russians, when they were able to corral the puck and get it under control, were content to merely flip it out and prepare to defend the next wave of red sweaters swarming the front of their net.
Just after the first television timeout of the period, the game took a surprising turn.
Evgeni Malkin won a face-off in the Russia end of the ice, and when Canada defenseman Jay Bouwmeester unwisely pinched deeper into the zone, Russian defenseman Nikita Zaitsev sprung Nikita Kucherov on a two-on-one rush. With Vladislav Namestikov riding shotgun, Kucherov wisely elected to shoot, and he beat Canada netmider Carey Price to make it a 1-1 game at 8:47.
Kucherov's shot on goal was the first for Russia in a span of 10 minutes and 44 seconds.
With less than four minutes remaining in the middle frame, Russia actually took a 2-1 lead. On a rare forechecking sequence, the Russians worked the puck around the Canadian cage, with Ivan Telegin passing toward Evgeny Kuznetsov at the back door. Kuznetsov adroitly batted the puck into the net behind Price to give Russia an improbable lead with 3:36 remaining in the period.
Ah, but leads over Canada have been short-lived in this tournament, and this one was no exception. A pair of quick and dazzling saves on John Tavares in short succession must have thrown some level of anxiety into the Canadian camp, but 13 seconds after a Russian icing call - there were a lot of those on this night -Marchand solved Bobrovsky to make it a 2-2 contest going into the third period.
"He played phenomenal tonight," says Marchand of Bobrovsky. "He made a lot of really big saves and really kept them in it, especially in the second [period]."
It was as one-sided a tie game as you'll see after 40 minutes of play. Canada was doubling up the Russians in shot attempts (58-29) and was outshooting them by 33-15. Russia's top offensive weapon - winger Alex Ovechkin - had hardly touched the puck all night, and had yet to as much as attempt a shot on net.
While there was drama lingering as the third period dawned, it didn't last long. Seconds after Bobrovsky robbed him on a tip-in try from in tight, Marchand scored from the left circle at 1:16, restoring Canada's lead at 3-2.
The goal was the third straight Team Canada goal from the line of Crosby and Boston Bruins teammates (and linemates) Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand.
"Bergie and Marchie have that chemistry already, and obviously Sid's a great player," says Canada center Ryan Getzlaf. "So they've been able to skate on the puck and work together properly, and it's been nice to watch."
Corey Perry scored on a rebound at 5:48 to make it a 4-2 game, and when Tavares put one behind the beleaguered Bobrovsky at 9:22, all doubt was removed. The Canadians were moving on to face the winner of Sunday's Sweden-Europe semifinal game while the Russians were preparing to disperse to various parts of the globe.
When it was all said and done, Canada was just deeper and better than Russia. There's no shame in that; no team in this tournament has been able to match Canada's depth and talent.
"That's one benefit we've had for a long time now," says Getzlaf, "is the depth that any line can score at any time and everybody is buying in defensively. As long as our systems stay tight and we keep getting better, we're going to be all right."
The best-of-three final starts on Tuesday here at Air Canada Centre.