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THN at the WJC: Canada earns bye, Russia and USA get set for challenges

Jonathan Huberdeau's empty-netter against Russia sealed the deal in Canada's favor. (Getty Images)

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Jonathan Huberdeau's empty-netter against Russia sealed the deal in Canada's favor. (Getty Images)

While goaltenders can be fussy about breaking in their gear, Team Canada netminder Malcolm Subban went all-in with a new set of pads and gloves. How close did he cut it?

“I got them and broke them in before the first camp scrimmage,” he said. “Around-the-net stuff was tough to break in, but I knew if I used them, I wouldn't use them as an excuse. I feel like they're really nice right now.”

Subban, the Boston Bruins first-rounder, has been huge for Canada in the past two wins over marquee opponents Russia and Team USA. His movements have been economical and he's been a cool customer in the crease. That's big for Canada, which has counted goaltending as a weak link in recent years. Against the Russians, he ended the victory by stoning Vladimir Tkachyov on a penalty shot.

Realistically, it wouldn't have mattered – the Canucks were up 4-1 with 19 seconds to play. But getting into medal round mode was important for Subban.

“It was huge for my confidence,” he said. “I wanted to end on a good note.”

Canadian fans will appreciate how close and feisty this game was. The two archrivals set a brisk pace in the first period and though a major penalty to draft-eligible winger Valery Nichushkin helped stake Canada a two-goal lead, the game was contested until a Jonathan Huberdeau empty-netter. It's probably better that way for both Canada and Russia, heading into the medal round in top gear.

“It's nice to blow out teams, but when you play a competitive game like this, that's how the next two games (in the upcoming medal round) are going to be,” said undrafted right winger J.C. Lipon. “It was a good test for us.”

The Americans drew Slovakia on the final day and did indeed blow out the Balkan contingent 9-3, in a game that was over in 11 minutes. It will be interesting to see how that affects them in their quarterfinal match against a talented Czech Republic team. For Team USA's Alex Galchenyuk, letting up on commitment was not an option, despite the lopsided play.

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“That's what we talked about before the third period,” he said. “No turnovers, be disciplined, no penalties. We still made a couple mistakes, but we need to forget about them and focus on the next game.”

The Montreal Canadiens prospect ended the game by burying a huge feed from Sarnia Sting teammate Connor Murphy and you could practically read the center's lips: it was a perfectly orchestrated play and a satisfying one, at that. Now the challenge for the Americans is preparing for a Czech team that boasts a much stronger defense and more potent offensive weapons.

Russia, which draws Switzerland in the quarterfinal, must be wary of the way its defense fell apart in the second period of its loss to Canada. Though the yield of goals wasn't high (Jonathan Drouin's wraparound off a beautiful feed from Ryan Nugent-Hopkins the only tally), the Russian blueliners often looked muddled and skittish. The Swiss may not have the elite talent of some other squads, but they do have a decent contingent of skill players who can do damage if left unchecked.

As it stands now, the power teams look primed to meet up in the semis, with Canada and Sweden earning byes. The Russians and Americans are favored in their matches, but must tighten up in the case of Russia and prepare to face a steeper challenge in the case of the U.S.

An energetic New Year's Eve crowd in Ufa went home disappointed, but if the local kids learn from their mistakes, another showdown with Canada would be more than welcome.

SCOUTS LET DOWN

NHL scouts may have been more disappointed than the fans when Nichushkin was kicked out of the game early for a hit from behind: As the top-rated 2013 draft prospect who plays domestically, he was a big draw for talent hawks who were hoping for a larger sample to draw from. If it's any consolation, the big, speedy product showed off some nifty hands and playmaking skills right before the penalty.

 

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