World Junior Championships: The Russians Are Defending Champions for a Reason

Steve ThompsonAnalyst IIIJanuary 4, 2012

CALGARY, CANADA - JANUARY 3:  Members of Team Russia celebrate after defeating Team Canada during the 2012 World Junior Hockey Championship Semifinal game at the Saddledome on January 3, 2012 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.  Team Russia defeated Team Canada 6-5.  (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)
Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images

While it is a bitter blow for Canada to see its junior team come up short against Russia again, it's no surprise—or shame—to see it happen again.

This current set of Russian players, many of whom played on the great comeback team of last year, have many of the traits that enabled Canadian teams (both at the NHL and junior level) in the past to become dominant champions.

In a way, the Russian and Swedish victories are a tribute to Canadian hockey; six Russians and four Swedes play in the CHL, probably the best junior hockey league in the world.

To a large extent, it is not so much of a story that Canada slipped as the Europeans and Americans finally caught up.

Much of the Canadian defeat can be blamed on the loss of two big edges Canadians used to have over their opposition, goaltending, and intangibles.

It used to be that Europeans only had Vladislav Tretiak and nobody else to play goal. But one look at current NHL rosters will tell the story; many of the top goalies in the NHL today come from outside of Canada.

Canada used to have a large surplus of top goalies, particularly from Quebec, but this big edge they used to have over the Europeans and Americans is no longer there.

In fact, the issue of goaltending and defensive play showed itself ominously for Canada in their second exhibition game against Sweden.

The Swedes scored three quick goals during the final minutes of the first period, and Canada found itself in a hole before it realized what had happened.

CALGARY, CANADA - JANUARY 3:  Angry fans taunt Yevgeni Kuznetsov #25 after he and Team Russia defeated Team Canada in the 2012 World Junior Hockey Championship Semifinal game at the Saddledome on January 3, 2012 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.  Team Russia d
Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images

Much of the same happened in the semi-final game, but only worse. Canada found itself down 6-1 before staging a desperate too-little-too-late comeback to make the score a tense 6-5 defeat.

Still you don't give up six goals in a game and expect to win.

Canada used to have a big edge in the intangibles; first displayed by Phil Esposito during the famous Canada-USSR match of 1972.

The Russians and Swedes have always sent talented teams to junior and Canada Cup/Olympic play, but while they had high level hockey skills, they ignored other factors that allowed Canada to pull out dramatic victories.

But these current Russian and Swedish teams are paying more attention to these intangible factors that were key parts of past Canadian victories.

Now they play with emotion and toughness.  

The Russians played with a never-give-up attitude last year, which allowed them to pull off their dramatic comeback last year. This year they played with poise and refused to panic when Canada had made its own desperate comeback.

All these intangibles once gave Canada a huge advantage over its opponents. It was on display again in the dramatic, final game at the Vancouver Olympics.

But the Europeans are finally paying attention to this aspect of hockey. Certainly this new generation of Russian and Swedish players is going to make a greater impact on the NHL when they enter the league.

CALGARY, CANADA - JANUARY 3:  Andrei Vasilevski #30 of Team Russia stops the puck on an attempt by Jonathan Huberdeau #11 of Team Canada during the 2012 World Junior Hockey Championship Semifinal game at the Saddledome on January 3, 2012 in Calgary, Alber
Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images

Not all North Americans were unhappy with yesterday's outcome.

The Washington Capitals have got to be overjoyed to see their prospect Evgeny Kuznetsov score a hat trick against Canada.

And Canada will certainly forgive Nail Yakupov, who had four assists and currently plays for the CHL Sarnia Sting, if he gets drafted by one of Canada's seven NHL teams.

Most of Sweden's and Canada's players have already been drafted by NHL teams, but the bulk of the Russian team has yet to be selected.

So the Russian players were playing for their NHL futures, perhaps another of those intangibles that gave them the edge over Canada.