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Character shines through for Team Russia

by Shawn P. Roarke
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Without faith, miracles are not possible. Fortunately, the Russians had enough faith for three miracles, the last going down as one of the most stunning in the history of hockey.

Team Russia, facing the very real threat of relegation earlier in the tournament after opening the tournament with two straight losses, scored five unanswered goals in the third period of Monday night's gold-medal game to shock Canada, 5-3, at a packed -- and hostile -- HSBC Arena.

"Simply, we believe in ourselves," said Artemi Panarin, who scored the first goal of the comeback and then netted the game-winner by outworking the Canadian defense for a loose puck in the slot and flicking it past goalie Mark Vesentin with just 4:38 left in the game. "It's just about our character. We never surrender."

Russia's character had been tested throughout this tournament. Not only did they start with two losses, but they were on the brink of elimination in both the quarterfinal and semifinal.

In the quarterfinal, two goals in the final four minutes of regulation turned a thorough 3-1 defeat into a 3-3 tie that Yevgeni Kuznetsov broke in the seventh minute of overtime. Two nights later, in the semis, the Swedes had Russia on the ropes, leading 3-1 in the dying minutes. Again, the Russians escaped with two late goals before Denis Golubev scored the only goal of the shootout to book a date with destiny.

Then, in the final, the Russians faced a physical, confident Russian team that had regained its footing with a 4-1 pasting of the Americans. HSBC Arena was packed to the rafters with Canadian fans ready to celebrate Canada's return to the pinnacle of junior hockey and, to top it all off, Canada took a 2-0 lead into the first intermission.

Yet, the Russians barely blinked. Perhaps it was because their coach Valeri Bragin was screaming too loudly.

"I've never seen him so angry," Panarin said.

He was angry enough to break some furniture in the dressing room, but he never lost his positive message, urging his team to believe it could win, that it needed to score just one goal to get on the road to redemption

"It was a very emotional speech," said Maxim Kitsyn, who had Russia's second goal in the comeback. "We had no choice but to win."

The Russians may not have had a choice other than victory, but they sure waited long enough to act on it. Brayden Schenn scored early in the third to make it 3-0 and chase starting goalie Dmitri Shikin, who was replaced by Igor Bobkov. Suddenly, the Russians faced a three-goal deficit, a more sizeable hole than they had faced in any of their previous Houdini-esque heroics. 

But, again, it didn't even faze these Russians. They couldn't score in the second, but they did start to chance the tide a bit, putting more pressure on a Canadian squad that was not quite as sure-footed in its own end. But, even that glimmer of hope seemed to be extinguished when the team's best player, captain Vladimir Tarasenko had to be helped to the bench -- clearly in distress -- after a collision with Canada's Marcus Foligno in the dying minutes of the second period.

But, Tarasenko refused to be removed from the game despite an injury -- believed to be to his ribcage -- that made it difficult to move. When Bragin told the player he was not going to play in the third, several Russian players confirmed that Tarasenko ignored him and demanded that he play.

The captain not only played in the third, but made a huge impact. He scored the tying goal at the 7:29 mark -- Russia's third goal in a span of 4:56 -- and assisted on the go-ahead goal a little less than eight minutes later.

"Even though he was really hurt, he said, 'I want to go on the ice,'" Kitsyn said. "The other guys had to be motivated by that."

That motivation showed just 2:33 into the third when Panarin began a comeback that took the hockey world by storm and shook the mighty Canadians to their very core. And, when it was over; when Nikita Dvurechenski scored on a breakaway to make it 5-3 with just 1:16 remaining in the gold-medal game, the Russians faith had finally been rewarded with a victory that none of the players will ever forget.

"I will remember this my whole life," said Bobkov, who stopped all 20 shots he faced in relief.

Years from now, they might remember the goals that gave them the gold medals they happily clutched as they hung gaudily around their neck. They might remember the speeches and the sacrifices that were required to author this historic comeback. But, to a man, there is one thing they will never forget.

"This is the best team in the world right now," Kuznetsov said through a translator. "We proved it tonight and we proved it (Monday)."

And, Kuznetsov said they proved it for one simple reason.

"We did it because we are Russians and because we are champions."

It was tough -- if not impossible -- to argue against that rock-solid tenet of faith Wednesday night.

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