It is unlikely that they will look at the headlines, or that they will even be allowed. But for a cast of Canadian players after an unforeseen loss to the Czech Republic they already have a mental image of what those headlines entail.
For the first time this tournament, Connor McDavid was a disappointment. After making a brilliant play on Canada’s first goal, McDavid would take two penalties and miss a decisive shootout attempt after being benched for most of the game’s conclusion.
Anthony Mantha, who made headlines for all the right reasons after game one, was largely anonymous in his second affair. He also took a dismal late penalty that really cost the Canadians despite resulting in a short-handed goal.
Meanwhile, Jake Paterson may have played his last hockey of the tournament after a disappointing effort against the Czech Republic. Canada’s anointed starter going into the game allowed a number of poor goals and was less than solid in the decisive shootout.
Even Jonathan Drouin, named best player of the game, will likely receive criticism in some circles.
Now comes the deep breath. It is unlikely that any of the hyperbolic reaction from the media or otherwise will make its way into the Canadian room. They will try to forget this game ever happened as quickly as possible. Usually when this kind of darkness falls upon Canada at the World Juniors it means they have been eliminated. It is also usually their first loss of the tournament: Canada rarely losses in round robin play, with their last round robin loss coming in the 2010 tournament. They are also rarely tested this early, as that loss was to Sweden in the final round robin game. This is a relatively new position for the Canadian World Junior team to be in, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.
The usual procedure for Canada when they lose at this tournament is to pack their bags and head home to face inquisitive press and junior games that temporarily lack meaning. In certain instances they will trot out for an equally meaningless bronze medal game.
Instead, after the loss to the Czech Republic the Canadian junior team is presented with a choice. They can let this loss affect their confidence, probably win a tight game against the Slovaks before losing to the US and exiting the tournament in the quarterfinals. They could also take this in stride, clean up their act and demonstrate that they should still be considered a tournament favourite: let this serve as a wakeup call that will fuel the team for the rest of the tournament.
Adversity has been an important part of many World Junior Champions. One only needs to look at the Americans being in third place after the round-robin last year, and the 2011 Russian team having an underwhelming round robin record to see that many of the previous champions of this tournament have started slowly and built on that performance in the playoff rounds.
Canada is already aware of what they need to do in order to win hockey games, as they are the same problems that affected them throughout the pre-tournament. The defensive effort and structure needs to improve. With Griffin Reinhart out until the United States game and Matt Dumba doing everything in his power to just remain standing during the Czech game this is going to be a major challenge. However, the insertion of Zach Fucale should be a refreshing one for Canada as he tries to prove that he should have started the tournament between the pipes.
Giving up an early goal once again put Canada on the back foot throughout the entire game. Meanwhile, penalty killing definitely improved during this game, but at the realization of a new issue. The Canadians have been dismal on defensive zone faceoffs and it has cost them. The first goal for Germany and both of the final two Czech goals were a result of lost defensive zone faceoffs.
However, more than anything the game against the Czech Republic gave Canada its first glimpse into what is and isn’t working for the team going forward. Sam Reinhart is a huge player for Canada, he once again demonstrated that he deserves to be playing in all situations. His excellent faceoff ability is also important for a Canadian team who have been disappointing in that regard.
Curtis Lazar was brilliant, especially in the third period. Adam Pelech deserves an expanded role, and should be playing with Dumba in the future. Charles Hudon seems to have earned himself a regular spot on a line with Mantha and Drouin. Jonathan Drouin continues to be solid, but requires his team to not take penalties in order for him to truly acquire a rhythm.
On the other end of the spectrum is Paterson, who let in a couple of very weak goals that hurt Canadian momentum in this game. As aforementioned he will likely be replaced by Fucale next game. Matt Dumba has been fairly worrying defensively for Canada and should be a reduced role in the next game, despite the obvious heart he showed in playing while clearly ill. The Canadian checking line of Josh Anderson, Kerby Rychel and Fredrick Gauthier have been less than effective. This has been particularly true of Rychel, who has been held pointless and was a minus player in the 7-2 rout of Germany. Anthony Mantha can ill afford to take games off like that again.
The next two games, against Slovakia, who have been fairly impressive so far this tournament, and especially against the United States will truly demonstrate the quality of this team. Provided they win both games in regulation they still have a chance to claim the top spot in the pool.
Canada have received their wakeup call. Now it is up to them whether they are going to push off the sheets or extend their four year slumber.
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