The Maple Leafs could have sent a lot more than two of their current players to the World Championships this year. But, wisely, some of them opted to take the full off-season, rest and recuperate and train for next year.
Mitch Marner and William Nylander head to head for gold was good enough to show the world what makes up the heart of the Leafs these days.
Before the gold medal was decided, came the worst match to play in at Worlds: the bronze medal game.
Russia vs Finland
Toronto’s third player at Worlds, Miro Aaltonen was back in the lineup again. He bounced around on this team from the top line to the fourth, to the bench, to the stands, to the second line, and finally, on the last day, to the third line. No one would call that a success, and his usage at times mirrored Jesse Puljujärvi, the more famous player getting the same treatment.
No one understands what Finland’s Lauri Marjamäki is doing. Ray Ferraro referred to him as seeming to coach early games in a daze. The treatment of Puljujärvi looked to have left him angry and confused rather than motivated. And Finland managed to get into medal contention only because they played well on one day at exactly the right time. That time being when the Americans phoned it in for the quarterfinals.
But despite that strange usage, the truth is Aaltonen was never a factor for the Finns. He has a basic quality game that can succeed, but he does not carry a line. Without a lot of power play time, he doesn’t get points. And he has no physical aspect to his game at all. Seeing him on the ice with an NHL third line centre like Valtteri Fillpula, the gulf between what he brings, and the game Aaltonen plays is obvious. This game was his last chance to make his signing by the Leafs look like more than getting someone to play on the Marlies.
Finland, traditionally, plays a bronze medal game like they mean it, and Russia, traditionally, do not. However, this Russian team is not very traditional. It’s got a checking line as the first unit, one KHL line that is excellent, one NHL line that is too, and a scrappy mix of two-way players on the fourth unit.
The KHLer Nikita Gusev scored first, the scrappy fourth line centre (and man who got away) Vladimir Tkachyov scored shorthanded to open the second period, Gusev added on on the power play, and maybe that tradition of the Russians not trying needs to end? They sure tried with all they had to beat Canada.
Defender Bogdan Kiselevich scored to make it 4-0 before the game was half over. And what happened next is what you should expect in a game like this. Mikko Rantanen scored, Mikko Lehtonen scored, and then Ranantanen and Sebastian Aho set up Veli-Matti Savinainen on the power play, and it was a game again.
Russia, who had been goofing around, got it together, Nikita Kucherov scored. 5-3 was the final, and Russia won the medal no one wants.
Canada vs Sweden
The game was everything that you want in two well matched opponents.
When we tried last summer in our Top 25 Under 25 to choose between Nylander and Marner, they finished nearly tied. We’ll have another try this summer, but in this game and in this tournament, they were both very good.
The edge goes to Nylander today, even though Marner had the only point between them. For Sweden, in the three single elimination games you have to win to take the gold, Nylander and Nicklas Backstrom were Team Sweden. Batman and Robin, one reporter named them. Everyone else was a support player.
In the gold medal game, the only goal for Sweden was a bloop single that somehow cleared the wall. It was scored by Victor Hedman.
The only goal for Canada was a rebound by Ryan O’Reilly of off Mitch Marner’s shot.
The gold medal came down to a shootout, which is always a cruel way to end a goalie duel. The two shots that went in were scored by Nicklas Backstrom and Oliver Ekman-Larsson, giving Batman the game-winning goal. Neither Nylander nor Marner could score on their opposing goalies.
The hardest hit of Nylander’s career:
It was all over put the passing out of the prizes.
Calvin Pickard was player of the game for Canada. Henrik Lundqvist was the player of the game for Sweden.
William Nylander was named tournament MVP and was voted to the all-star team.
And this is how you receive a trophy in Sweden:
Oh, and one more look at that hit in freeze frame, so we know how Nylander celebrates a big win: