You could say it was a turbulent preliminary round at the world juniors for Canada.
Starting from a 2-0 deficit behind Team USA in the tournament opener on Boxing Day, the Canadians were able to come away with a 6-4 win, but it left behind questions as to how the goaltending would hold up — or who would wind up being the No. 1.
Game 2, a 6-0 loss to Russia, was one of the worst defeats in team history at the world juniors and left the Canadians without two key players: Alexis Lafreniere, the presumed No. 1 overall NHL draft pick this June, left with a knee injury, while Joe Veleno was suspended one game for a head-butting incident. Goalie Nico Daws was pulled, so again questions persisted at the position.
Canada’s third game was much less dramatic, a 4-1 chalk win over the Germans, and it sort of steadied the ship. The team got through the game without two of its key forwards and goalie Joel Hofer seemed to win the starting job in net.
So that Canada’s final preliminary round game had some hectic moments and a record-setting run was maybe not the most surprising outcome. Playing the host Czechs, Canada was able to come away with a one-sided 7-2 win that, after everything, locked them in as the No. 1 seed from Group B and a medal-round date against Slovakia.
But after a very fast start against the Czechs, there was a time it seemed like this game could slip away from the Red and White. It could have happened, if not for their power play and all the opportunities it was given.
Here are our takeaways from Canada’s final game before the medal round:
THE ROCK SOLID POWER PLAY
Coming into the game against the Czechs, Canada’s power-play efficiency rate was humming along at 33.3 per cent, good for second in the tournament. But Canada had only been put on the power play 12 times, which was a tournament low before they met the hosts.
In the first period alone on Tuesday, Canada was given three power plays, including a five-minute advantage after Otakar Sik was given a game misconduct for spearing Bowen Byram in the groin. Team Canada was not going to let this chance pass them by. On the three power plays, Canada managed four goals to come out of the first period with a commanding 4-0 lead.
In fact, the four power-play goals Canada scored (Barrett Hayton, Connor McMichael, Joe Veleno, Nolan Foote) set a team record and tied a tournament record for PP goals in a single period. The U.S. also scored four goals on the man advantage in a single WJC period in 2013.
So now the Canadians leave the preliminary round with the top-ranked power play at 45 per cent, and the best route possible through the medal round. For all the questions they faced before the tournament, the uncertainty in net, and the uphill climb they had to make in battling through their first three games, it’s almost unbelievable Canada wound up as the best in their group.
THE MOMENT IT ALMOST SLIPPED AWAY — AND THEN WAS TAKEN BACK
If there is a troubling takeaway from such a lopsided win, it’s how Canada’s lack of urgency in the second period allowed the Czechs back in it. And if not for one unlucky bounce, this game could have had a much different conclusion.
Just past the halfway mark of the second, the Czech Republic scored twice — once on the power play and once at even strength — just 14 seconds apart. Suddenly a historic first period and a monster lead was cut in half. With the home crowd building in noise and intensity behind them, the Czechs were now only trailing 4-2 and appeared to have all the momentum on their side.
Then fortune went against them.
Seconds after the Czech goal, Canada’s Ty Smith dumped the puck in from the red line, but as Czech goalie Nick Malik left the net to stop it behind the net, the puck took a wild bounce directly to Liam Foudy, who was left wide open in front with not even a goalie left to stop him. The Columbus Blue Jackets draft pick buried the puck to give Canada a 5-2 lead and break any momentum the Czechs were gaining.
The two Czech goals and the Canadian answer all happened within 24 seconds of each other, which set another tournament record for the three fastest goals between two teams in world junior history. It broke the previous record of 26 seconds from a Sweden-Germany game in 1983.
But that’s not all — it got even worse for the Czechs.
The coaching staff decided to challenge the Canadian goal for offside, but when the review came back negative, the Czechs were given another two-minute minor penalty. And before long, Canada had scored another on the man advantage, this time off the stick of Dylan Cozens, to restore their four-goal lead. Cozens was named player of the game for his efforts, which included this goal and three assists.
That was the moment it really felt as though Canada had won the game. The Czechs and their fans were deflated after a furious push in the middle of the second period.
GOOD RESULT, BUT PLENTY TO PROVE
There are lots of positive takeaways from the preliminary round for the Canadians. The questions in net appear to have been answered. Dealing with some adversity, they were able to put together a performance good enough for the No. 1 seed in the group. And, outside of the Russia loss, they showed an ability to find another level and rise to the occasion at critical moments.
But now we’re into the single elimination games and the competition is going to be stiffer. Two of Canada’s three wins have come against teams they’re supposed to beat — Germany and the Czech Republic. And the Czechs were even significantly banged up, missing three 19-year-olds to injury, and losing another mid-game when Sik was given the boot.
However, against the sort of teams that should be challenging for gold, the Canadians have been less impressive.
With a full roster against the Americans they were, on one hand, able to overcome an early two-goal deficit, but later blew a two-goal lead of their own before Lafreniere’s goal in the final minutes led them to victory.
Lafreniere missed his second game in a row Tuesday, and though the outlook for his injury isn’t bad, there’s still no guarantee Canada’s most dangerous offensive player will return. Against the Russians, Canada was absent and lost the physical game — and though Russia will wind up third in Group B, that is not a team anyone should be looking forward to matching up against.
The Canadians will face another one of those “should beat” teams in their first medal-round game against Slovakia on Jan. 2. That should at least lead Canada to a better result than it ended with at last year’s tournament, when Finland ousted them in the first medal-round game. But gold? There’s nothing separating this team from the pack of contenders right now.
The Canadians certainly can’t look past Slovakia. A loss to them would leave Canada without a medal in five of the past eight WJCs — extending the country’s worst stretch in tournament history. But, assuming they do move past Slovakia, Canada will likely only see the cream of the crop from then on out, and their showings against those types of teams have been far from flawless. More than half of Canada’s goals have come on the power play this tournament, and they cannot count on being given that many advantages going forward.
Let’s block ads! (Why?)