|Canadian players celebrate with their medals after defeating Russia 5-4 in the gold-medal game at the world junior hockey championship Monday night at Air Canada Centre in Toronto. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)|
The sweetest sound was the final buzzer.
Canada built a four-goal lead on Russia and could taste gold at the world junior championship. What followed was a harrowing struggle just to hold on.
"We didn't panic or certainly tried not to panic," Sam Reinhart said.
There were moments of panic, but by the time Monday night was over, gold medals were hanging around the players' necks and they sang along with "O Canada" while locking arms on the blue-line on home ice at Air Canada Centre after a thrilling 5-4 victory over Russia.
It wasn't easy, but Canada's world junior gold-medal drought that dated to 2009 was no more.
"We're world junior champions, we're world champions. It's joy," Connor McDavid said. "We were never really under pressure. The media and all the fans might've been putting that pressure on us, but we were just able to brush it off. Right now this is just absolute joy."
Joy was heightened by the emotional twists and turns of this gold-medal game, another classic in the passionate rivalry between Canada and Russia that began with the 1972 Summit Series. This will go down as another unforgettable piece of Canada-Russia history.
"This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and experience and we took advantage of it," Max Domi said. "It's awesome. No matter what happens in our lives, we're always going to remember this."
Anthony Duclair scored to give Canada the lead and ignite the crowd of 19,004 just 23 seconds in, and Russian starting goaltender Igor Shestyorkin was chased after Nick Paul scored goal No. 2 less than three minutes in. Thanks to goals from McDavid, Domi and Reinhart, Canada proceeded to build a four-goal lead at 5-1, and this looked like it would follow the script of past games in this tournament.
This veteran team led by 19-year-old captain Curtis Lazar, a rookie with the Ottawa Senators, had never trailed and cruised into the final. Goal by goal the lead got smaller, and at 5-4 coach Benoit Groulx was forced to use his timeout to settle a rattled team that looked like teenagers for the first time.
"That's no question the most adversity we've faced throughout the tournament," Reinhart said.
After going undefeated with victories over Slovakia (twice), Finland, Germany, the United States and Denmark, this was the first time Canada was really pushed. Clinging to a one-goal lead from late in the second period and through the third, the onus was on goaltender Zach Fucale, who imploded in the semfinals of this tournament a year ago.
This time, Fucale was at his best, stopping all 11 shots he faced in the final period, including two in the final 12 seconds to preserve gold.
"To come out in the third period there with all that pressure on his shoulders being the goalie ... he made some huge saves, calmed us down," defenceman Josh Morrissey said. "He was just able to calm us down and make some huge saves."