It wasn't supposed to be this way, but then it never is: Canada will not win gold at the IIHF World Junior Championship.
The Russians, for the second year in a row, made sure of that.
It must be strange to be a Canadian hockey star under age 20, with its mixture of fame and fate. This tournament in many ways exists for you. More often than not it's hosted in your country or in a U.S. border city within easy commute for droves of traveling Canadian hockey fans. Your country's obsession with the tournament -- led by a flag-waving sports network -- keeps the money pouring in to help the tourney grow.
And of course, you're usually a gold medal favorite. All you have to do is win for a nation of passionate fans who vividly live and die with the result. They're counting on you, the favorite and favored sons.
But as every hockey fan knows, and as the U.S. team found out jarringly in the preliminary round, the favorites are far from a sure thing in this sport, even in this tournament which sees scores reach double digits before the medal round. That reality doesn't keep people from saying it's "Canada's tournament to lose" though. Every year.
Yet through heartbreaking, dramatic turns, Canada did indeed lose in 2010 (in a riveting OT to the U.S.), in 2011 (in a stunning third-period collapse to Russia) and now again in 2012 before they even got to the gold medal game. Despite blitzing two Russian goalies with a combined 56 shots last night -- and despite an impressive four-goal surge in the third period -- Canada could not erase an early 6-1 hole.
Russia moves on to the gold medal game Thursday versus Sweden, an anticlimactic all-Euro matchup for the home fans. Canada must play Finland for bronze, the first time in 11 years where Canada will not be in the gold medal game.
As Bruce Peter at Puck Worlds details, Tuesday night was a crazy night in both semifinals: Russia's Washington Capitals prospect Yevgeni Kuznetsov led the way with a hat trick and an assist in what looked like a laugher until the third period. and Finland blew a 2-0 third-period lead to hated rival Sweden, ultimately losing in the cruelest of fashions, the shootout.
Nothing has gone as planned.
Now Russia, which knocked off the medal round favorite on its home soil, might actually be the underdog in the gold medal game. Sweden, led by comeback and shootout hero and Anaheim Ducks prospect Max Friberg, guns for its first gold at the WJC in more than three decades.
The pre-tournament favorite USA, which stumbled early in this short tournament, spent yesterday beating up on the Latvians 12-2 -- part of the indignity of the relegation round losers must complete just to be invited back next year. The medal round favorite Canada, which in recent memory was gunning for its sixth consecutive gold medal (before John Carlson ended it in that aforementioned OT), must settle for a chance at bronze.
It seemed far-fetched just a week ago, but now it's quite possible neither North American power and quasi-permanent host country will leave with a medal.
Because in hockey, thankfully, things don't always work out the way they were supposed to. It's always everybody's tournament to lose.