Seven error-filled minutes.
That’s what cost Canada a shot at glory in this year’s IIHF World Hockey Championship.
But those seven minutes against underdog Slovakia on Thursday essentially encapsulate the stretch of international hockey disappointment that has followed Sidney Crosby’s golden goal at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
Two bad penalties. Key players caught out of position on a back-breaking goal. The inability to protect a lead in a tight game.
These types of mistakes have prevented Canadian players from the golden opportunities more than anything else recently, and on Thursday, they came against a “far inferior” opponent, as general manager Kevin Lowe described Slovakia following a shocking 4-3 quarter-final loss.
“They had no business being in the game,” Lowe said of the Slovaks.
Yet there they were with time ticking down at Hartwall Arena. Slovakia was well aware of the situation and played the role of spoiler perfectly, patiently sitting back and hoping for Canada to slip up.
What happened next was nothing short of a meltdown.
First, captain Ryan Getzlaf’s line with Corey Perry and Evander Kane got caught up ice when Milan Bartovic raced in and tied the game with a rebound off the rush at 13:25. Then, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was assessed a boarding penalty. Just as Canada killed that one off, Getzlaf was given a kneeing major for an open-ice hit on Juraj Mikus at 17:28.
Four seconds later, Michal Handzus tipped home the winning goal.
“You’re going with a lead in the third (period), you’re up 3-2, that’s got to be your bread and butter,” said Canadian coach Brent Sutter. “Games are tight and you’ve got to be able to close the deal on them.
“We probably beat ourselves in the last seven minutes of the game with things we talked about all tournament not wanting to do.”
Ultimately, that might be the most intriguing part of Canada’s third straight early departure from the world championship. The team didn’t encounter anything it didn’t expect here. On the eve of the tournament, Lowe talked about the need to play “flawless hockey” once the do-or-die games start.
It never got there.
Canada assembled a good team for this event and the players seemed to grow together while winning six of seven round-robin games. There was every reason to believe they would rise to the occasion when it mattered most.
Instead, Canada played a tepid opening 10 minutes against Slovakia and quickly found itself down 2-0. It roared ahead during an inspired second period — Slovak captain Zdeno Chara said it was a “small wonder” his team survived it — but faded down the stretch.
And even though this was the youngest team Canada has ever sent to the world championship, it was Olympic and Stanley Cup champion Getzlaf who made the most crucial error.
“It hurts like hell right now,” he said. “I feel like I let the guys down. To be in a hard-fought game like that and play the tournament we did and lose in that fashion, it’s not easy to swallow as a group.
“The guys worked way too hard to be delivered something like that.”
There could be a lesson in it for some of the players — that’s the hope anyway. A handful of them will likely return to the world championship next year and a lucky few should find themselves at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, provided NHL players continue to participate.
Lowe is part of Steve Yzerman’s management team for that event and the wheels are already turning in his head about what style of play provides the best chance of success in these type of tournaments.
For this world championship, Sutter decided not to impose too much structure, hoping to leave room for the individual skill of his players to carry the team. Virtually all of Canada’s opponents countered with more detailed, system-oriented approaches. Essentially, they tried to make hockey boring.
However, it prompted Lowe to at least ask himself the question of whether the “robotic approach” might be better.
“There’s always that fine line between allowing creativity at the expense of giving the opposition an opportunity,” said Lowe.
It’s sure to be a topic of discussion when Hockey Canada holds its world championship post-mortem.
There are no easy answers staring them in the face this time around. After the team blew a third-period lead on the way to being knocked out of the quarter-finals by Russia last year, Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson criticized some of the young players who declined an invitation without a suitable explanation.
However, Lowe was happy with the reaction he received this time around and didn’t think the personnel held the team back. The devil ended up being in the details.
“When you have a one-goal lead you want to make sure you’re doing things right,” said forward John Tavares. “Obviously, we still had to be better in a lot of areas to secure a win.”
The disappointment was compounded for Tavares and Jordan Eberle as both have been part of the three consecutive early world championship exits. However, each has shown growth from year to year and they comprised two-thirds of Canada’s most dynamic line during this tournament along with Jeff Skinner.
All three are 22 or under and should earn strong consideration for Sochi.
And if they end up getting the call to compete in Russia, it’s safe to assume they’ll draw on the lessons learned during these tough defeats. This was obviously not the way Canada envisioned its tournament wrapping up, but that doesn’t mean the experience was a wasted one.
“We did a lot of good things in this tournament for being a very young team,” said Sutter. “One thing that I’ve learned through this is that this is a real tough tournament. Every game’s a tough game.
“There’s no such thing as an easy opponent when you get here.”
Notes: Evander Kane, Jeff Skinner and Alex Burrows scored for Canada ... Tomas Kopecky and Miroslav Satan also had goals for Slovakia ... Duncan Keith finished as Canada’s top scorer with 11 points ... Canada rang three different shots off Slovak goalie Jan Laco’s head in the second period ... Chara is playing in his first world championship since 2007 ... Announced attendance was 11,568.
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