Canada, Russia drawing on previous heartbreak for motivation in semifinals
What is Devon Levi feeling on the eve of Canada's semifinal showdown with Russia?
"Goosebumps," the goalie said with a smile. "Can't wait. I can't wait to play."
Levi, a freshman at Northeastern University, earned an invite to Canada's World Junior camp thanks to a stellar performance at the 2019 World Junior A Challenge in Dawson Creek, B.C. Levi was named tournament MVP as Canada East fell to Russia in double overtime of the championship game. Shakhir Mukhamadullin, who's also at the World Juniors, scored the winner on the power play.
"It was heartbreaking," said Levi, who made 39 saves in the final. "I still remember exactly how I felt and hopefully we can do something about it tomorrow ... I'm just looking forward to getting a second chance."
Levi owns the best save percentage at the World Juniors (.967) and shut out the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals. Afterwards head coach Andre Tourigny admitted he wasn't sure Levi had this type of performance in him.
"I won't say I knew him and had no doubt," Canada's head coach told TSN's Ryan Rishaug. "We've liked him since the beginning. Since he was with us, we love what he brings. We love his energy. We love his focus. We love his attention to detail. We love everything about him, but if I'm telling you, 'Yeah, I knew before,' that is not true."
Canada's staff wasn't sure Levi's play would translate from Junior A to the World Juniors, but the Florida Panthers seventh-round pick has silenced all the questions about the team's goaltending situation.
On Monday, Levi will see Yaroslav Askarov, the 11th overall pick in October's NHL Draft, at the other end of the ice and it says a lot about his ascent that Russian head coach Igor Larionov was unwilling to say his team had an edge in net.
"Both teams are equal and there are no advantages," Larionov insisted. "We don't underestimate anybody."
Levi made 23 saves when Canada shut out the Russians 1-0 in a pre-tournament game on Dec. 23. Askarov stopped all 22 shots he faced in two periods of work that night.
Askarov, who has a .918 save percentage in four games in Edmonton, was at the World Juniors last year, but lost the starting job to Amir Miftakhov and didn't see the ice in either game against Canada. Levi, meanwhile, re-watched the entire gold-medal game between Canada and Russia as part of his preparation for camp.
"I took a lot of things from it," he said. "They're high-intensity games and there are a lot of momentum changes and I'm just ready for highs and lows throughout the game. I'm just excited."
Levi paid special attention to how Joel Hofer kept Canada in the game even as they trailed throughout much of the tension-filled encounter.
"He was rock solid," Levi observed. "He did a real good job of managing his emotions. The team went down and he did a good job of shutting the door and giving them a chance to get back in."
Only three Russian players – captain Vasili Podkolzin, Maxim Groshev and Askarov – are back from last year's team, but the sting from the defeat was felt throughout the country's hockey community.
"They're going to be coming out for revenge," noted Connor McMichael, one of six returning players on Canada's roster. "We're going to be up for the task."
Is last year's loss on the minds of the Russians?
"No doubt about it," said Larionov. "No doubt."
McMichael says Tourigny is a similar coach to Dale Hunter, who ran Canada's bench last year in Ostrava, Czech Republic. But Larionov has implemented a much different style than his predecessor Valeri Bragin.
"It's day and night," said Tourigny. "It's totally different. Different style, different philosophy, different objective in their game. They like to possess the puck. They regroup a lot. They have a good stretch on their breakouts. They got a few breakaways out of it. They still are really stingy defensively, still defend really well. They're strong on puck. They're fast. They're a good team."
"My coaching philosophy is to bring Russia hockey back to the top," said Larionov, "and make the players play the game, not work the game. It's about collective play and about moving the puck quick. That's the game I want them to enjoy. That's the game they have to play as little kids when they have no pressure and just go out and have fun."
So, what are the keys for Canada against Larionov's system?
"Probably the biggest difference is their patience with the puck," said defenceman Jamie Drysdale, who scored the only goal in the pre-tournament game. "So, we'll need to adapt to that and make sure we have a really good forecheck."
Drysdale admitted it can be tricky staying on your toes as a defenceman when the Russians are constantly regrouping with the puck.
"It's definitely a challenge to get your gaps right," said the Anaheim Ducks first rounder. "We need to make sure we're sharp with that and making sure we always have our feet moving when we gap up so we never get caught flat-footed. I think that happened to us a couple times in the exhibition game and we have to sharpen up on that."
Injured centre Alex Newhook skated for about 50 minutes on Sunday as he continues to nurse an upper-body injury. The Boston College product often conferred with Dr. Barry Wiens, the team physician, as he tried out some shots and jumped into the glass a couple times to test his shoulder.
Newhook continues to be listed as day-to-day and his status for the semifinal against Russia is still up in the air, Tourigny said.
Larionov confirmed that Yegor Chinakhov is good to go for Team Russia after missing the last two games with a lower-body injury.
With Canada the top seed, Tourigny will have last change on Monday and will likely look to get the McMichael line out against Russia's top trio of Podkolzin, Rodion Amirov and Marat Khusnutdinov.
After the win on Saturday night, Tourigny was asked whether potting an empty-net goal may help McMichael get back to his high-scoring ways. The London Knights sniper had seven shots and hit three posts against the Finns on New Year's Eve. But Canada's coach immediately shifted the conversation and made it clear McMichael's value goes well beyond his offensive contributions.
"Mikes is an underrated player defensively," said Tourigny. "He sits in the weeds and reads the play well and he has a good stick and he cuts plays [off] and does a lot of good things."
Perhaps that explains why Tourigny has opted to keep McMichael in the middle and shift Dylan Cozens, another natural centre, to right wing on Canada's top line. McMichael made a nice pass to spring Cozens for the opening goal on Saturday. Tourigny also noted that the Washington Capitals first rounder was really reliable on face-offs against the Czechs.
"I've evolved in a large way in that aspect," McMichael said of his two-way game. "Just being with the Caps last summer and being around those guys [in the bubble] and working with their development team taught me a lot. Watching guys like [Nicklas] Backstrom and how they approach the defensive side, you try and pick out things."
In a conversation with TSN before the World Juniors, McMichael described what he sees when he watches Backstrom.
"Just how smart he is, his hockey sense. He's not the biggest guy, but he's able to get around just using his hockey sense and his stick and that's kind of the game I play. I'm not the biggest guy, but I feel like I have great hockey sense and a good stick so I'm trying to pick a lot of things from his game. He's just so responsible and all the coaches trust him, so that's kind of the game I'm leaning towards and he's a great role model."
With Canada struggling to pull away from a stubborn Czech team on Saturday night, Tourigny juggled his lines in the third period most notably promoting Peyton Krebs to the top unit with McMichael and Cozens.
"Krebsie is a driver on his own line, but yesterday I felt we could give a shot to our team to have a top line with Krebise and Cuzzy and Mikes so I went with that," Tourigny explained. "I don't know how many minutes they played, but they played a lot in the third period. With the game on the line, I felt that was the right move."
"He's an Energizer Bunny," said McMichael of the 5-foot-11 Krebs. "He's small, fast and really skilled. I love playing with him and if we're playing together tomorrow I'd be really happy."
Tourigny may revert to a more balanced approach at least to start the game against Russia.
"To have success as a team we need four lines with a lot of intensity," the coach said, "but when the chips were down for 20 minutes, I felt like we needed a line who I could rely on and those were the three."
Krebs called the Czech game the most physical one Canada has played so far and that style certainly seemed to suit the Vegas first rounder.
"I've liked the game of Krebise a lot throughout the tournament," said Tourigny. "He brings a lot of energy. His tracking is phenomenal. He creates a lot of possession down low. He makes a lot of plays."
Krebs lived with Mark Stone in Vegas at the start of last season as he rehabbed an Achilles injury and the pair have been in touch throughout the World Juniors.
"We've texted pretty much every game and he's giving me the odd tip here and there," said Krebs, who was with the Golden Knights inside the bubble this summer. "I love chatting with him and he's been great for me. Definitely was a little intimidated going into Vegas with all those studs, but he made the transition a lot easier."
The most notable message from Stone?
"He tells me to, 'Just have fun,' and also to remember this will be the last time I ever do this. He said, 'It's shorter than you think,' and 'Come to the rink with a smile on your face every day.'"
Stone led Canada in scoring and won a bronze medal at the 2012 World Juniors, which was the last time the event was held in Alberta. That was also the last year Canada played Russia in the semifinals with the home side falling 6-5 in a wild game.