A lapse of concentration in their most recent game aside, the Canadians have melded into a contending team at the IIHF World Championship on little preparation.
Canada heads into Thursday’s quarter-final game with firepower on offence, an improving blue-line and goaltending capable of getting wins.
The quarter-final has been Canada’s stumbling block in this tournament with losses in the last three consecutive years.
“We realize that,” forward Steven Stamkos said. “The last three years, I think, have been early exits and it’s not going to get any easier.”
Canada awaits the conclusion of the preliminary round Tuesday to confirm its quarter-final opponent. Montreal Canadiens defenceman P.K. Subban was added to the team Monday and will play in the quarter-final.
A 4-3 overtime win over relegated Slovenia on Monday gave Canada 18 points from five wins, an overtime win and a shootout loss in the round robin.
Unbeaten Switzerland was one point back with a game in hand. The Swiss need just a point Tuesday against Belarus to secure first place.
The top four countries in each group advance to the quarter-finals with one playing four and two facing three.
Host Sweden (4-2) will finish third in Canada’s pool. Tuesday’s game between the Czech Republic and Norway will determine the fourth quarter-finalist in Stockholm.
The United States, Finland and Russia will finish top four in Helsinki, but Tuesday will determine their seedings. The fourth and final playoff berth in that pool was still up for grabs between Slovakia, Germany, France and Latvia.
Because the NHL’s lockout-shortened regular season ended three weeks later than usual, this Canadian team had no training camp or exhibition games.
After three practices, and one of them the night they stepped off the plane, Canada was forced to become a team on the fly. They played seven games in 10 days during the round robin, including back-to-backs three times.
Canada’s team game improved each of the first five games. The sixth, Sunday’s 2-1 win over the Czech Republic, lacked the offensive fireworks of the previous games.
Canada would finish no worse than second in their pool Monday regardless of the outcome against Slovenia, ranked No. 18 in the world and already relegated to the second-tier world championship next year.
The Canadians sleepwalked through the first period and trailed by two goals against the Slovenians who came ready to compete.
Canada’s forwards are the strength of this team. Stamkos, twice the winner of the NHL’s goalscoring trophy, is a threat every time he steps on the ice. His overtime goal was his second of the game and sixth of the tournament.
“Obviously you don’t want to start a game like that,” Stamkos said. “If you do against the next opponent, you’re probably going to be going home.”
Matt Duchene and Brenden Dillon scored Canada’s other goals.
Devan Dubynk, who rotated with Mike Smith in Canada’s net, made 17 saves for his fourth win of the tournament. Smith faced the tougher opponents in the round robin with wins against the Czechs and Swedes and a shootout loss to Switzerland.
Canada’s blue-line is a work in progress and was lacking the international experience of the forwards. Vancouver Canucks defenceman Dan Hamhuis joined the team Saturday and has played the most minutes in his two games so far.
His stretch pass up to Stamkos on Monday gave the forward an easy breakaway on 19-year-old Slovenian goaltender Luka Gracnar, whose 35 saves was almost enough for a historic upset.
Subban, a Norris Trophy finalist as the NHL’s top defenceman this season, will add more big-game experience to the blue-line.
“How physically strong he is, the fact that he’s a right-handed shot and should be able to help our power play shooting from the off-side, he’s a tremendous weapon skating on the big ice and being a veteran player is going to help our team,” Canadian head coach Lindy Ruff said.
The defencemen, three of whom made their international debuts for Canada here, were a concern in Ruff’s mind when the tournament began. Despite Canada’s defensive gaffes in Monday’s first period, Ruff is comfortable Canada’s capabilities on the back end.
“We wanted to be a solid defending team,” he said. “That was a question mark, as young as we were on the back end, whether we could defend throughout the tournament? I think that questioned got answered.
“We did a nice job eliminating situations that would have been goals against and some of those young defencemen stepped up for us.”
Canada ranks first in the tournament in penalty killing, but the power play has been up and down. Canada was held scoreless on four chances Monday, including three consecutive in the second period, after scoring three power-play goals against Belarus last Friday.
“With the exception of that first period today, we’ve grown as a team,” Stamkos said. “When we play well defensively we know we have the offensive talent on this team that can go down and control the puck in the offensive end and get some shots.
“We’d still like to get to the net a little more, get pucks to the net. It’s a bigger zone to play in and cycle, but sometimes you’re in there for a minute, minute 20, we don’t generate any shots.”
Notes: Canadian defenceman Luke Schenn served his automatic game suspension from the match penalty he took against the Czech Republic . . . The addition of Subban gives Canada nine defencemen . . . Subban won gold at the world junior hockey championships in 2008 and 2009, but this will be his first world championship . . . Slovenia is qualified for next year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia . . . Slovenia’s coach is Matjaz Kopitar, the father of Los Angeles Kings centre Anze Kopitar.