Canadian celebration (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
Canada was doing a lot of this in its quarterfinal against Denmark Friday night, a sight that will likely be repeated a number of times when it faces Slovakia in the semifinal Sunday night. The Canadians have barely had to break a sweat so far. How will it react if that changes?
Canada’s team at the World Junior Championship had better be having some competitive practices and off-ice workouts because the games have been anything but that for the team wearing the maple leaf.
In fact, there’s a pretty good chance this team could go into the gold medal game Monday night having had just one game in which it was tested in the entire tournament. There’s a good chance they will have never trailed in a game, will have never faced any real adversity, never had to dig deep within themselves to pull out a victory. For some of these kids, the most difficult thing they've faced to this point was making the team.
Now none of this is Canada’s fault. It went 4-0-0 in the preliminary round and did not ask for a quarterfinal matchup against Denmark, which it won an entirely predictable 8-0 laugher. It was actually kind of cute how they allowed the Denmark players to touch the puck once every so often. It did not request the Czech Republic to pull the chute in its own quarterfinal, leaving them to play the Slovaks in the semifinal Sunday night. It didn’t have any choice over the fact that the Americans were the only real competitive team in their group, and even they weren’t that competitive. They did not ask to outscore their opponents by a 29-4 margin in their first five games.
(By the way, note to WJC teams: Use USA’s tournament this year as a cautionary tale. You will never, ever win this tournament bringing five guys with you who aren’t old enough to get drafted and don't give the 'C' to a kid who just blew out 18 candles on his birthday cake two months ago. It has always been an 18- and 19-year-old tournament, always will be. For every Eric Lindros and Wayne Gretzky who excelled at this event as underage players, there is a litany of Mario Lemieux’s, Joe Thornton’s and Rick Nash’s who did next to nothing as draft-eligible players.)
It’s looking very much as though the Canadian team and its fans are not going to find out how this team responds to big-time pressure and a worthy opponent until the final Monday night. And that’s all well and good if you’re looking for an easy route to the gold medal game because the Canadians could not have had it easier if they tried to engineer it themselves. But the problem with a one-game scenario with a gold medal on the line, what happens if they don’t respond well to their first bit of adversity?
Strange tournament, these World Juniors. The International Ice Hockey Federation seems to think it’s a good idea to have a one-game showdown for world supremacy, but hold a two-out-of-three series to decide the last-place team in the tournament. Perhaps someone at the IIHF might want to switch that around, particularly given the cash cow this tournament is when its held in Canada or anywhere near the 49th parallel.
The potential dangers involved in a one-game showdown after no difficult competition are very real. In 2004 in Helsinki, Canada cruised to a 4-0-0 record in the preliminary round, outscoring its opponents 25-4, then went directly to the semifinal where it blasted the Czechs 7-1. It was looking like it would go down in the annals of history as arguably the greatest World Junior team of all-time when it carried a 3-1 lead into the third period against USA. That was before things began to unravel and the Canadians, unaccustomed to facing on iota of adversity to that point, had no ability to stop the tide. Much the same thing happened in 2011 in Buffalo when Canada was not beaten in regulation time in the preliminary round, won its quarterfinal and semifinal by a combined score of 8-1 and carried a 3-0 lead over Russia into the third period of the gold medal game. Then things blew up real good and again, the tide of momentum overwhelmed them.
Could that be the case this year if (when?) Canada makes it to the gold medal game against either Sweden or Russia? Well, there’s a pretty good chance Canada will not really have a great handle on which goaltender to start because neither Zach Fucale nor Eric Comrie has been really tested. In a one-game showdown to decide the gold medal, what if the coaches choose the wrong guy and it’s too late before they realize it?
Perhaps none of this will happen and the 2015 World Junior Championship will be less of a hockey tournament and more of a coronation of Canada as champions of the world. But if things go sideways for the guys with the maple leaf Monday night, the fact they barely broke a sweat prior to that game might have something to do with it.