The fans have not yet begun to arrive, but already the air inside the Halifax Metro Centre is electric for the conclusion of the 2003 IIHF World Junior Championship. Canada vs. Russia, the quintessential hockey rivalry, will be renewed tonight when the two teams square off in the gold medal matchup at 8:10pm local time.
Both teams enter this contest with unblemished records thus far in the tournament. Canada battled through a tough Pool B, emerging with a 4-0 record, and setting up a semi-final match-up against southern neighbours the United States.
In a game sure to remembered by all who witnessed it, Canada edged the USA in a thrilling 3-2 semi-final, booking themselves a ticket to the finals. The game featured excellent goaltending at both ends of the rink, as Canada’s Marc-Andre Fleury backstopped the red and white to a victory, while American goaltender Robert Goepfert looked brilliant in a 40-save performance. In the end, Canada was elevated to victory by a goal from Jeff Woywitka, a defenseman who has been asked to play a primarily ‘stay-at-home’ role throughout this tournament.
The scene now set for the gold medal game with Russia, Canada waits to meet its biggest challenge. This is truly the matchup that everyone wants to see. Russia boasts the most offense in the tournament thus far with 25 goals, but Canada is just a goal behind with 24. Both teams have allowed only eight goals against, and both teams have enjoyed a perfect 5-0 record in games played.
As it often seems to, this game may end up coming down to special teams. Canada has the best power play in the tournament, converting 40% of the time, while the Russians continue to be among the leaders in penalty minutes, averaging 15 minutes a game. This could very well end up being the opening that Canada must use to win.
Beginning in 1977, the Russians defeated Canada in each of the first four tournaments of U20 competition. More recently, four of the past five years these two teams have met in the medal round. All four contests have been won by Russia – defeating Canada in the finals in 2002 by a 5-4 score, semi-finals in 2000 by 3-2, finals in 1999 by 3-2, and the quarter-finals in 1998 by 2-1. The last time that Canada won the gold, in 1997, the road went through Russia, a 3-2 semi-final victory.
One thing is certain for tonight’s finals—this will be a hard-fought, tight game that goes right down to the wire. Some 10,000 screaming fans should provide Canada with any final motivation it requires.