For 40 minutes, it was more of a coronation than a contest. Then it turned into one of the biggest chokes in hockey history, maybe the worst single-game collapse our neighbors to the north have ever seen in any sport.
Team Canada was in complete control of the IIHF World Junior Championship gold medal game Wednesday night in HSBC Arena with a 3-0 lead over Russia through 40 minutes. It seemed almost certain its legion of red-clad fans who filled the arena to the rafters were heading to Chippewa Street for a party through the night that would stretch from coast to coast north of the border.
Then the unthinkable happened. The Russians scored five goals in the third period to pull off a stunning 5-3 victory and deal Canada heartbreak in the tourney's ultimate game for the second straight year.
Artemi Panarin had two of the goals, including the go-ahead tally with 4:38 to play. The Russians scored five times on 10 shots.
When the final horn sounded, the Russian players burst onto the ice in a hail of flying gloves and sticks to celebrate with goaltender Igor Bobkov -- who blanked Canada after taking over for Dmitri Shikin, who had given up all three Canadian goals.
Canada's players collapsed to the ice or bowed their heads on the bench as many of the 18,690 filed slowly to the exits.
"It's our fault. We had the game in our hands," said Canada captain Ryan Ellis. "It's tough. You let your fans down, your country down when you thought you had it but life goes on. You've got to get over it."
Hockey fans in Canada will probably never get over this one. It will be front-page fodder in every newspaper.
"I don't believe in the saying that we won a silver medal," said goaltender Mark Visentin. "I think we lost gold. That's why we came here. We didn't come here to get silver. We came for gold. It's a brutal feeling losing."
"Really shocked," said Canada forward and Sabres draftee Zack Kassian. "That's the perfect word for it. We were up three goals and it was our game. We came out and they outplayed us. They kept the pressure on and did all the little things to win."
The victory was Russia's first in the tournament since 2003 and capped an amazing rally that included comebacks in the quarterfinals against Finland and the semifinals against Sweden. The Russians got even in the final minutes of both games and won in overtime and a shootout, respectively.
Ellis, Carter Ashton and Brayden Schenn scored for Canada while Visentin was pitching a shutout to the delight of the howling sellout crowd of 18,690.
Then, everything changed.
Panarin got Russia on the board at 2:33, beating Visentin with a quick snapshot from the slot. The Russians really felt back in the game when Maxim Kitsyn scored 13 seconds later, beating Ellis to a loose puck and dribbling it through Visentin's legs.
"The first one got us back on our heels, sucked the wind out of the crowd," Kassian said. "They scored that one 13 seconds later and they had a lot of momentum and were flying around. We couldn't get our feet underneath us and they kind of took over."
At 7:29, St. Louis Blues prospect Vladimir Tarasenko tied the game at 3-3 with a one-timer off a feed from Yevgeni Kuznetsov. Panarin's go-ahead goal came when he took a pass from behind the net at the edge of the crease and pounded it home in front of defenseman Simon Despres.
Tarasenko, the Russian captain, was knocked out of the game in the second period but returned to score the tying goal and assisted on the winner.
Nikita Dvurechenski scored the insurance goal with 1:16 left, sliding a backhander through Visentin's legs to silence the crowd and send many fans streaming to the exits. Yvgeni Kuznetsov had three assists.
This was the 10th straight year Canada has played in the gold medal match of the under-20 tournament. It won five straight titles from 2005-2009 until losing last year to the United States in Saskatoon. The Canadians avenged that loss in Monday's semifinals here and moved on to meet the Russians.
Ellis and Ashton scored for Canada in the first period, the latter goal coming with just 13.5 seconds left in the stanza. Schenn added his eighth goal of the tourney early in the second period.
Schenn's two points gave him 18 in the tournament, tying ex-Sabre Dale McCourt (1977) for Canada's all-time record and moving him one point ahead of Wayne Gretzky (1977) and Eric Lindros (1991).
The building was packed from the first row behind the glass to the top row of the 300 level. And everyone was wearing red. There were signs and placards everywhere. Maple leaf flags, too.
The noise matched what was heard here when the Sabres were playing in the 1999 Stanley Cup finals and 2006-2007 runs to the Eastern Conference finals. Probably more. When the horn went to end the first period, it wasn't even audible over the din.
The goal by Ashton, son of former NHLer Brent Ashton, came with 13.5 seconds left in the stanza to give Canada a 2-0 lead and huge momentum. Ashton worked a give-and-go with Louis Leblanc, stepping out of the right corner and putting a quick shot high over Shikin's glove, off the left goalpost and in.
The party continued through the second period. It was crashed in the third under a Russian avalanche the hockey world won't soon forget.
"We knew what we wanted to do and we tried to do it," Kassian said. "Sometimes it's not fair. Sometimes life isn't fair. Sometimes the game of hockey isn't fair. It's simple. They worked harder than us in the third period and they won."