Brent Sutter was beaming after watching his Canadian team open the IIHF World Hockey Championship on a winning note.
But the 3-2 victory over Slovakia didn't come without some cause for concern.
Forward Alex Burrows suffered an apparent concussion just before the midway point of Friday's game, leaving his availability for the rest of the tournament up in the air. He was expected to be re-evaluated by team doctors on Saturday and was listed as questionable for a game later that night against the U.S.
Otherwise, head coach Sutter liked most of what he saw from a Canadian team that will need to find itself during the round robin after having little time to prepare as a group.
“For our first game of the tournament, it was certainly a really strong effort,” he said.
Canada controlled much of the play against Slovakia and sustained a balanced offensive attack. The goals came from Jamie Benn, Jordan Eberle and Andrew Ladd — players that were slotted on different forward lines.
Sutter was forced to do some juggling after losing Burrows and chose to insert Evander Kane in his place on a unit with Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
The Vancouver Canucks winger was injured during his first ever game with the national team. He accidentally collided with Marcel Hascak in the offensive zone and appeared to hit his head on the ice. General manager Kevin Lowe called the injury “real high” upper body and one teammate said privately he thought it was a concussion.
“He was doing OK,” Lowe said of Burrows. “He was doing fine in the dressing room.”
The Canadian team has already dealt with its share of ailments. P.K. Subban was sent home before the tournament started after injuring his knee in an exhibition game and Marc Methot remains out with a groin issue, forcing Lowe to activate 18-year-old Ryan Murray against Slovakia just so Canada would have six defencemen.
Adversity is something Hockey Canada has come to expect from this event, which is more of a marathon than a sprint with 10 games needed to capture gold.
In addition to the injury issues, the schedule has also provided a challenge with back-to-back games to kick things off — against good opponents in the Slovaks and Americans.
“I think it's good for us to get in these tough games early on,” said Ladd. “I think Brent's done a great job of getting us at a high pace in practice. We have enough players that can play an up-tempo game, that's the game we want to play.”
Aside from the Burrows injury, the opener went smoothly.
Captain Ryan Getzlaf made an outstanding play to set up Benn's opening goal, finding him with a backhand pass in the slot through traffic. Making it even more impressive was the fact Getzlaf only joined the team on Wednesday and was playing for the first time in a month.
He expects to get better.
“There was definitely some rust out there,” said Getzlaf. “We'll work that out in the next couple days here.”
Cam Ward had a light night in the Canadian goal but was solid when tested. Early in the second period, the Slovaks got some life after Tomas Tatar tied the game 1-1 but Ward stood tall.
Eberle managed to restore the momentum Canada enjoyed early on with a goal Slovak netminder Peter Hamerlik would like back, squeezing home a wrist shot from the lower circle at 12:30. Ladd made it 3-1 less than three minutes later after converting a nice pass from Ryan O'Reilly.
The only Canadian line held off the scoresheet was the John Tavares-Jeff Skinner-Patrick Sharp trio, which had numerous chances. They're arguably the team's No. 1 unit.
“There's some things we can improve on,” said Sharp. “We'll get better as we go along.”
Sutter was pleased with the team's ability to hold the lead in the third period, particularly after Milan Bartovic scored through traffic three minutes in to narrow the advantage to 3-2.
Canada also had to kill a late penalty to Corey Perry — the only one it was assessed on the night — before claiming victory. It made for a satisfying evening.
“These games are tight,” said Sutter.
Notes: Ward got his first start for Canada since the gold-medal game of the 2008 world championship ... Canada has beat Slovakia on six straight occasions ... The last time Canada lost its opening game of the world championship was 1978 ... Evander Kane and Ladd are the first Winnipeg Jets to appear for Canada in the tournament since Luciano Bursato in 1995 ... Announced attendance at Hartwall Arena was 6,400.
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