Niagara IceDogs Akil Thomas Huge as Team Canada Beats Russia 4-3 To Win 18th Gold Medal

Team Canada looked to add to their 17 championship-titles at the 2020 World Junior Final on Sunday as they looked to exact revenge on a Russian team that trounced them 6-0 in the preliminary round. After getting down 3-1, Team Canada was able to come back for a huge win beginning with a Connor McMichael goal.

Joel Hofer (Portland WHL/ St. Louis NHL) continued to guard Canada’s crease for Dale Hunter’s squad and was fantastic making many key saves. Defenceman Bowen Byram (Vancouver WHL/Colorado NHL)returned to the Canadian point after missing the quarter-final win over Finland while sick. Team leading-scorer Barrett Hayton (SSM OHL/Arizona NHL), who had left the last game after an arm injury returned in a gritty effort by the former Soo Greyhound.

1st Period

The first period saw Russia come out with pressure in the Canadian zone for the first couple of minutes before Canada came back with some pressure of their own as the teams skated for just over three-minutes of whistle-less hockey to open the game. 

Russia got the first powerplay of the game at 4:06 with Jared McIsaac (Halifax QMJHL/Detroit NHL) in the box and would be the start of a huge test for the Canadian 76% penalty-killing units as they would take four penalties in the period. Canada would have a solid kill allowing one shot against versus a powerplay coming into the game scoring seven powerplay goals in their last three games. Canada took some momentum back over the next couple of minutes as the shots were even at 4 mid-way through the period.

After Canada had their first powerplay with Nikita Alexandrov off for slashing, they looked to continue to blitz teams while on the man-advantage having converted on eight of 15 chances in their last three games and 12 for 27 overall. However, Joe Veleno (Grand Rapids AHL) would get called for interference when slashing the stick out of a Russian forward’s hands and the Canadian powerplay was shortened by 27 seconds on the second penalty of the period for Hunter and his squad. While on the short four-on-four, Connor McMichael (London OHL/Washington NHL) would have a good opportunity after spinning around and rifling a backhand at Russian starter Amir Miftakhov. 

The remaining 1:33 of the penalty to Veleno was killed, but 48 seconds after his penalty ended Ty Smith (Spokane WHL/NewJersey Devils NHL) was called for holding and the Russians took more advantage of this opportunity getting two shots including a great chance after the puck bounced off a Canadian defender in the crease towards Hofer, but he was able to keep it out. The undisciplined play continued when Kevin Bahl (Ottawa OHL/New Jersey NHL) would get called for slashing at 17:09.

2nd Period

Russia took an early second-period penalty but Canada’s powerplay couldn’t connect. Alexis Lafreniere (Rimouski QMJHL)  almost got Canada on the board after he blasted a one-timer off a nice feed from Hayton but Miftikhov made the save.

Canada was called for a fifth penalty early as Hayton was sent off for holding the stick in what appeared to initially be a hooking call on the Russian player. Hofer was outstanding all game and was Canada’s best penalty-killer making a good save on a partial breakaway and following up with two good saves in quick succession off rebounds. Canada could have been considered lucky to escape the first period without a powerplay goal against but their luck ran dry at 9:38 after a tipped shot by St. Louis Blues prospect Nikita Alexandrov found its way between Hofer’s legs and it was 1-0 Russia. The play was reviewed for a high-stick but the goal stood.

Dylan Cozens would draw a penalty as he cut to the crease taking a slash while Canada was pressuring after a Lafreniere steal in the Russian zone. As the play was being whistled for the penalty, Russian took another for holding and Canada had a great opportunity going to the five-on-three for a full two minutes. 

Connor McMichael and Dylan Cozens at Sport Chek Team Canada Selection Camp in Oakville, ON(Photo By Marcus Boutilier/OHLNetwork))

It didn’t take long as Cozens took advantage and Canada was tied 1-1 at 11:01. While on a two-man advantage, coaches want to see pucks to the net and forwards outman the opposition down low. As if it were drawn up, and just 12 seconds into the two-man-advantage, Canada won the draw and got a quick puck to the net by Lafreniere where Cozens and Veleno outbattled a Russian defender to bang home the loose puck. 

Three minutes later, Russia would take their second lead of the game when Russian captain Grigori Denisenko poked a loose puck in the crease for the 2-1 goal. Last year’s leading scorer at the tournament took advantage of a shot that hit Hofer in the mask and dropped down in front of him at 14:46. The second ended with the teams even in shots but Russia was called for a penalty at the end of the period.

3rd Period

Canada missed the opportunity to tie the game on their period opening powerplay. Minutes later, after being sent away by Raphael Lavoie (/Edmonton NHL), McMichael had a great chance to get Canada their second goal but couldn’t beat Miftakhov on a breakaway chance as the goalie made a good blocker save on the sniper. 

Russia took advantage of a Jared McIsaac turnover for a two-goal lead at 8:46 when Maxim Sorkin beat Hofer to the blocker side giving them the 3-1 lead. After the centre-ice turnover, Russia got the puck to the net and Ilya Kruglov was able to feed Sorkin off to the right side of the goal and he fired shot beating the Canadian goalie high blocker.

Canada didn’t give in and over the next 2:01 were able to tie the game. It was 3-2 after McMichael deflected a shot off his foot for his fifth of the tournament at 9:20. The Washington Capitals prospect scored in his fourth straight game to get Canada back in business. Captain Barrett Hayton played the game with an injured hand but scored on a beautiful wrist-shot that beat Miftakhov at 11:21 past his blocker in the top left corner setting up an exciting finish at 3-3.

It’s a tournament like this any player can become an instant star and Akil Thomas (Niagara IceDogs) put his name on the Canada legend status today with a highlight goal. After playing under four minutes in the first two periods, Thomas put Canada ahead 4-3 on Canada’s third consecutive goal with the first goal of his World Junior career with just 3:58 left. He went in alone on the Russian goal and was able to pull the puck around Miftakhov and go to his backhand before putting it over the downed netminder for the go-ahead goal.

Akil Thomas with the Niagara IceDogs earlier in the OHL season (Photo By Terry Wilson/ OHLOmages)

Kevin Bahl was called for his second penalty late at 17:19 to make things really tight and in a game that had seen plenty of powerplay chances, it may have been fitting to end this way. Russia couldn’t score on the man-advantage with the second powerplay shortened when Russian took an interference penalty at 18:34 to end the Russian pressure. 

Russia had the goalie pulled for an extra attacker but took two penalties and Canada skated away with their 18th Gold Medal Championship winning 4-3.

A three-goal period was the difference for Canada who got great performances from goaltender Joel Hofer and Player of the Tournament Barrett Hayton.

Player Profile: Connor McMichael

Connor McMichael entered the game having played six games in various roles since the tournament started in what would have to be considered a plus for the Washington Capitals down the road. Most young players entering the NHL with the scoring prowess of a McMichael aren’t necessarily held back because of a lack of ability in the offensive zone, but more so to get better attuned with the expected two-way game of pro-hockey. 

The diverse forward also played both centre and wing showing his ability to change within the game and not miss a beat with a strong hockey IQ alongside his deadly-accurate shot. Over the six games played leading up to the final he averaged 13:49 of ice registering four goals and an assist and was on a three-game goal-scoring streak. 

With McMichael playing in all situations including both special-team units he’s showing why some have talked of him being able to crack the Capitals lineup next fall. He does have one more year of junior-eligibility but with what he’s doing at times in the OHL this season, it may be unfair for both McMichael and the opposition to have him come back. And with the Capitals GM Brian McClellan needing to find ways of making dimes on the dollar in cap space, he may be a valuable asset to have on the team next year on an entry-level deal.

Connor McMichael at Sport Chek Team Canad Selection Camp in Oakville, ON(Photo By Marcus Boutilier/OHLNetwork)

Like he had earlier in the tournament, McMichael was a catalyst in the Canadian comeback with his fifth goal today. After not scoring on the breakaway earlier in the game, it was poetic justice to have a puck go in off your skate to start the comeback. Important to remember, in international rules, you are not allowed to direct a shot with your foot as in the NHL. 

He also assisted on the game-winning goal by Thomas to finish with five goals and seven points in seven games at the tournament. For a player who wasn’t being counted on for offence, he certainly made his mark and will now take home a gold medal with London teammate Liam Foudy and head coach Dale Hunter. 

The tournament showed off why the Capitals are high on this prospect (signed last year) with his ability to play anywhere while being a dangerous player anytime he has the puck on his stick.