Calgary, AB - It was a train-wreck through 40 minutes. Last year's debacle in the gold medal game seemed so distant, but Russia pounced on an ill-prepared Canadian squad once more, shooting out the lights in a 6-5 win at Scotiabank Saddledome.
In the end, it was much closer than many would have expected.
With the loss, Canada has been relegated to Thursday's bronze medal game; they'll challenge Finland, the team in which they dismantled on opening night in an 8-1 drubbing at Rexall Place.
Unlike 2011's gold medal result, thanks to tonight, that does seem like a distant dream. The tournament began so well, but the team's tour through Calgary screeched to a halt with a disappointing 40-minute outing.
Disappointing doesn't describe it well enough. While the Canadians came back and nearly orchestrated the tie, the horn sounded in a one-goal loss that will carry a long-lasting sting through these players' young careers.
Whether or not Canada would admit it, the bad habits that were hoped to be eliminated in wins vs. Denmark and the US earlier in the week crept into tonight's contest. Against the Americans, questionable decisions on odd-man rushes and suspect drive through the remaining 40 minutes appeared to come out against a more highly-skilled squad.
"I don't think so," the coach countered.
"It's a tough feeling," said Brett Connolly, who experienced the disappointing loss last January as well. "Having gone through it last year, we wanted to do the same to them. It sucks, it stinks. We battled right to the end and we had a good third period, but we've got to be ready to start games. We can't give up six goals and expect to win a hockey game, even though we almost did.
"We've got to be better, we've got to correct some things and be ready for Finland [in the bronze medal game]," he added. "We've got to hold our heads high; we didn't quit and I'm proud of everyone in that locker room.
"But it still sucks."
It all started at 7:26 when Nail Yakupov spotted Yevgeni Kuznetsov parading on his natural side; the pass connected, and so too did the shot as an unsuspecting Scott Wedgewood was beaten clean to put the Russians up 1-0.
Kuznetsov added a pair later on to notch his hat trick.
Before long, it became a two-goal advantage. With Tanner Pearson in the box serving a hooking minor, Nikita Nesterov blasted a point shot on goal, escaping Wedgewood's glove-side grasp and putting Canada in a 2-0 hole 6:34 later, silencing the sold-out, hometown crowd.
Canada provided hope to the 19,289 in attendance in the extra-boisterous Saddledome when Brett Connolly cashed 2:37 into the second. He walked off the sideboards and ripped a snapshot upstairs on Andrei Vasilevski, raising the masses and nearly crumbling the Dome's most unusual ceiling.
"We didn't get the start that we wanted," explained Canadian Head Coach Don Hay. "We'd had good starts all through the tournament. We made it 2-1 and I thought we were back in the game, but then we gave up a couple goals that were easy ones for us to give up."
Russia added three in the second period and another early in the third to make it 6-1, leaving the Canadians with 12:06 to execute a most stunning comeback.
Dougie Hamilton got it all started, scoring at 9:20 and bringing those that had headed for the exits back to their seats. They weren't likely to come back and win, but at least goals were being scored and the entertainment value had increased. 6-2.
Just like that, it was 6-3. 23 seconds later, Jaden Schwartz collected a Brendan Gallagher pass behind the net and banked it in off the goalie to bring the home side a little closer. With still 10 minutes on the clock, what seemed impossible moments ago had now become plausible.
With the exceptional talent on Canada's roster, anything could happen.
It almost did. At 11:59, Gallagher tipped home a point shot and it was 6-4. Brandon Gormley notched another at 14:17 and suddenly it was a one-goal game with six minutes remaining to decide the outcome.
In the game's waning moments, Ryan Strome snapped a shot from a slot and caught iron; the crowd rose but the players kept going, and Connolly's rebound try snatched the goalie's leather, keeping the Russians ahead. It was as close as they would come in a bitter, hard-to-swallow end to Canada's gold medal hopes.
"I was really happy with the way that we battled back," Hay said. "We had a good push and kept battling, but we couldn't tie it up. When you get down 6-1, it's a long hole to dig out of, and we had to be better early and we weren't."
"We weren't happy, obviously," said Schwartz, whose goal helped propel Canada's comeback try. "We needed to be better. We battled back hard and had some chances to tie it up at the end, but their goalie made some good stops and we couldn't capitalize.
"We've got to stick to the game plan," he added. "No matter who we're playing, we've got to stick to it. [Russia has] a lot of skill and we needed to take away their time and space; we didn't do that and they scored on almost all the chances they got because of it."
The game plan, designed by a quick start, was a common theme as Canada addressed the media. Teary-eyed and all, they believe they beat themselves; a troubling concept to accept, giving the age-old bitterness between nations.
"It's a rivalry," Connolly said. "It's Canada-Russia. They don't like us and we don't like them. They were rubbing it in our face. It sucks and it's not easy to swallow, but we've got to move on and be better. It's unacceptable.
"We did believe in each other, but we need a better start. It's as simple as that."
It's not what they wanted, but Canada will now go head-to-head with Finland to determine the bronze medal winner. They'll get an opportunity to soak it in, rest up and prepare prior to Thursday's match with a day off.
"It's not what we came here for," said netminder Scott Wedgewood, who stopped nine pucks on 13 shots and was pulled at the game's midway mark. "We've got to pick our heads back up, play the bronze game and come out with a win in that one. It's not what we wanted, but it's a learning experience for all of us. We've got to play a full 60 minutes. It's a cliché, but we proved tonight that it's true."
"Every game you play is worth playing for," Hay added. "It's an honour to win a medal when you're at these competitions, no matter what medal it is."