If nothing else, this year’s World Junior tournament has demonstrated the unpredictability of the youth level of hockey. In Group A, the Czech Republic may be the perfect example of this phenomenon. After being outclassed by the Americans in their tournament opener they would proceed to defeat Canada, before being shutout by the lowly Germans and then triumphing over a fairly solid Slovak team. Group B is no different: the Russians were defeated by the Finns who would proceed to lose to Switzerland, whom Russia had beaten earlier in the tournament, in a shootout.
Heading into the New Year’s Eve match-up between Canada and the United States one would be foolish to not lean the way of the later. The United States had dominated the tournament from the outset and had yet to fall behind in a game. Meanwhile, their neighbours to the North had lost to the Czech Republic prior to narrowly defeating the Slovaks. Despite an impressive comeback effort in that game, many Canadian fans and media members had already turned their backs on a team whom they considered the most defective of a series of disappointing junior teams.
However, after Canada’s surprise 3-2 victory in that very game it is difficult not to regain a sense of optimism for this team of former underachievers. In the end, after all the worry and disappointment, the team finished right where they were expected to be; atop Pool A. The victory, despite its relative insignificance in terms of ending Canada’s four year gold medal drought, has demonstrated to the world that the Canadian team should still be considered favourites.
Absorbing this optimism and confidence is important for a Canadian team which has seemingly lacked just that for large portions of the round robin tournament. The squad should feel good about a statement victory. But at the same time this should be a sort of cautious confidence. Despite the win the Canadian team cannot allow this to quench their thirst for improvement, and plenty of potential improvement remains. As aforementioned, this victory is nothing but a statement, it only marginally affects how the team’s medal round will play out. Head coach Brent Sutter will preach indifference, but it is up to the individuals in the Canadian room to focus on the task ahead not the emotional victory over the States.
Furthermore, despite the victory, the United States truly dominated large sections of game. Canada was once again incredibly slow out of the gate and allowed the Americans to fully demonstrate the quality of play that makes them one of the most feared teams in this tournament. They also once again put themselves at a disadvantage when they allowed the first goal for the seventh straight game if you include pre-tournament fixtures. If it had not been for a couple of Canadian goals against the run of play the result would have been entirely different.
But in Canada’s early failures came its greatest success: the goaltending of Zach Fucale. Fucale had the first truly impressive goaltending performance from a Canadian in this tournament. He not only kept his team in the game when they once again decided not to show up for the first period, but also maintained the lead which his play allowed. In order for Canada to regain the gold medal this performance is going to have to be repeated at least twice more. Fucale demonstrated it is within him, however, and that is an important confidence booster for both the young goaltender and his teammates.
Canada also played a far more disciplined brand of hockey against the States, which proved to be a surprise considering they were playing a hated rival. In limiting penalties they were able to reduce the effect of an incredibly dangerous American powerplay. Canada’s defensive effort also improved, an obvious byproduct of the presence Griffin Reinhart’s return has enacted. Meanwhile, after games against both the Czech Republic and Slovakia in which they were unable, Canada was finally prolific in finishing the chances with which they were presented. This is something that has to continue for a team that is not as offensively gifted as many editions of its predecessors.
Simply put, the Canadian team raised their level of hockey against the Americans. This demonstration is encouraging going forward, but must be taken in stride. Last year during the round robin Canada defeated both Russia and the United States. In fact the American game from last year’s competition was very similar: a tight, low-scoring game that realistically could have gone either way. However, when Canada met the US again in the semi-finals they brought a similar level to that round robin game. The Americans, on the other hand, had stepped a level above and completely dominated a shell shocked Canadian team.
The Canadian juniors can take a few moments to enjoy their big victory; they should also be impressed with how they responded to the adversity of the Czech loss. But only for a moment. The focus must turn forwards now to the still many ways in which they can continue to raise their game.
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Main Photo Credit Winnipegfreepress.com, CC