After a dominant performance on home ice during the 2015 World Junior Hockey Championship, Canada finds itself with a much more difficult road to the gold medal this year. Objective observers saw this year’s tournament as one of the most wide open in a long time and through the preliminary round that has proven to be the case. Sweden & The USA have been impressive, Russia and the Czech Republic have surprised and Finland has looked like a team that could score their way to the finals.The vast majority of the top teams have looked like they could be the team to win gold. Canada, on the other hand, has looked far from it.
The loss to Team USA was nothing to be worried about as many had the Americans as the favorite to win the gold coming into the tournament. The win against Denmark was a good one as they were dominant for most of the game, but the fact that they only had one goal outside of the second period was a concerning sign for the team’s offense. It was the third game against the Swiss that was about as disappointing as a win can be. With the IIHF’s 3-2-1 point system, the fact that the Swiss were able to hold Canada off in regulation time meant the win only netted two points and left Canada without the ability to catch Sweden and the USA regardless of the outcome of their big game on New Years Eve. Some will say “a win is a win” and the Swiss are a team with a lot of experience playing in North America but this was a game should have absolutely won. It was the only point Switzerland gained through the preliminary round and getting out to a slow start like they did is something they can’t afford to do in the medal round.
“Maybe we underestimated them a little bit, maybe the respect factor wasn’t there and maybe it was just a lack of preparation.” This quote from defenceman Joe Hicketts is particularly concerning since a lack of preparation is something that can be catastrophic in a “lose and you’re out” format. Going into the final preliminary round game against Sweden, Canada was already locked into third place in Group A. The outcome of the game wasn’t important in the standings, but it was incredibly important for a Canadian Team that might have let doubts creep into their psyche. Coming off of an incredibly disappointing shootout win that cost them a chance at one of the top two spots in the group and a much easier quarterfinal match-up, Team Canada needed the win against a very strong Sweden team if for no other reason than to show everyone that they should be still counted among the contenders in the tournament. The 5-2 loss put them as a distant third in the group losing to the two clear favorites and has made them look like a pretty distinct underdog going into the first game of the medal round. Canada not only lost but they looked significantly outmatched against a Swedish team that was missing their best player. The Canadians looked disinterested, disjointed and like a team that needs to figure things out quickly to avoid their worst finish at the tournament in more than a decade.
On To the Next Round
With the third-place finish in their group, Canada will have a quarterfinal matchup against the second place team from Group B. After Russia went undefeated in the first round and locked up the top spot in the group, second place fell to the host Finns after a dramatic 5-4 win against the Czech Republic in their last game of the first round. Through the preliminary round, Finland was an offensively dynamic team that relies heavily on their two stud 17-year-olds Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujärvi. The two players that are both locks to be drafted in the top ten this summer have been great and along with their linemate Sabastian Aho, sit as the tournament’ns top-3 scorers. Finland has their offense to win games something that could end up being problematic for a Canadian team that hasn’t scored nearly as well as their forward talent would suggest they should. It will be a tough matchup that will result in one of the tournament’s gold medal favorites going home with no better than a fifth-place finish.
Finland’s Patrik Laine: “Our team has played really well so far. I’m confident and looking forward to beating Canada.”
— Ryan Kennedy (@THNRyanKennedy) January 1, 2016
The Finns are a confident bunch and it seems like they cherish the opportunity to knock out the defending champions. Canada will need to play its most complete game of the tournament to win but if nothing else fans should take solace in the fact that this team has been playing below it’s potential and if it can figure things out they should have the talent to get past Finland. The winner of the Canada vs Finland game will then get the likely reward of a semi-final match-up against Sweden who will go up against Slovakia Saturday afternoon.
The Other Quarter Finals
While Sweden and Russia are going to benefit greatly from their preliminary round play by drawing inferior competition in Slovakia and Denmark in the quarterfinals, both second vs third games promise to be incredibly competitive. If Canada can figure things out their matchup with the Finns promises to be an exciting one but the most competitive may be the USA vs Czech Republic game. While many (myself included) overlooked the Czech’s going into the tournament, the addition of David Pastrnak from the Boston Bruins has made them a legitimate threat. Pastrnak has looked like the best player in the tournament and has the ability to keep his team close even against the strongest competition. Led by Pastrnak and Michael Spacek, the Czechs took Russia to a shootout and lost a back and forth 5-4 game in the last few minutes to Finland. They have proven they can play with the top teams and if the Americans aren’t on top of their game they could be in danger of being eliminated in the quarterfinals for the second straight year.
More Is Needed
When the Vancouver Canucks announced that they would release Jake Virtanen for the World Juniors it was viewed as a coup for the Team Canada. He spent the first part of the season n the NHL and would be a looked upon as the top winger option for the Canadians. Virtanen has played big minutes and is getting his chances yet he hasn’t scored a goal despite leading the team in shots on net. Virtanen will be a little more productive if Canada is going to be able to maneuver their way through the tough road to the finals.
Along the same lines, Maple Leafs prospect Mitch Marner was viewed by many to be the top offensive threat for Team Canada since he entered the evaluation camp tied for the lead in OHL scoring. Through the first few games, Marner looked to be struggling and appeared to be trying to do too much. Marner spoke of feeling uncomfortable going into games and it has shown on the ice. Marner is a game breaker and at any time can carry a game offensively.
After three somewhat underwhelming performances to start the tournament Marner was one of the lone bright spots against Sweden on Thursday. He scored a powerplay goal and was able to create scoring chances for a team that desperately needed them. If Canada is going to have any chance against Finland they are going to need Marner to build on his play against Sweden and hope that some of the other key players can follow his lead.
Maybe This Team Canada Just Isn’t That Good
Every year fans in Canada view their team as the favorite to win gold regardless of the actual caliber of the team. Last year’s team was filled with high-end 19-year-olds complimented by a once in a decade player in Connor McDavid. This year’s is a step back from that and may just be one of the teams that simply doesn’t deserve the label of ‘favorite’ that was automatically bestowed upon them. The top veteran forwards on the team Virtanen, Brayden Point and Brendan Perlini have been thoroughly underwhelming. The three expected leaders have looked anywhere from mediocre do down right bad. if not for Dylan Strome and Mathew Barzal, Team Canada would look far worse through the preliminary round. The duo of 18-year-olds has looked dangerous on almost every shift and have been too of the lone consistent bright spots for a team that has looked disjointed and out of sorts for the vast majority of their time together.
Going into the medal round the only thing that is certain is that Team Canada is going to have to play significantly better if they want to avoid a very disappointing finish. They have the talent and potential to turn things around in a hurry and make a run but if not it will be just 11 months before the ‘comeback’ narrative begins to run rampant as the tournament returns to Toronto/Montreal next December.