Erik Gudbranson thought it was the best thing for Team Canada to be locked in a tight game against France in its world hockey championship opener.
“That’s a great test for our team,” the defenceman said. “It’s good to be put in those situations quickly and be able to figure it out.”
Problem is, Canada never quite figured it out.
The Canadians took more penalties and committed more turnovers on the way to a stunning 3-2 shootout loss to France on Friday at Chizhovka-Arena. In the quick reflection of history, it looked like Canada’s worst loss at the IIHF world hockey championship since falling to Norway in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2000.
It was just the second time Canada lost to France in this tournament, with the only other one coming in 1995. Previously the Canadians were 8-1 all-time against the French and looked like a significant favourite again this time.
Instead, six minor penalties, too many turnovers and two power-play goals by France spelled disaster.
“We took some poor penalties, put them on the power play and made some critical errors on the kills that ended up coming back to bite us,” coach Dave Tippett said. “When you’re playing a team that is just playing not to lose because every time you turn the puck over or take a penalty, they’re just waiting for that advantage. They’re just waiting for you to make a mistake and they feel like that’s when they can make up for the discrepancy, possibly, in talent.”
The talent discrepancy looked substantial, even as Canada returned no players from the team that won gold at the Sochi Olympics. All 20 skaters and goaltender James Reimer play in the NHL, while France had just Antoine Roussel from the Dallas Stars, Stephane Da Costa from the Ottawa Senators’ organization and former Montreal Canadiens goaltender Cristobal Huet.
Not surprisingly those players played major roles in one of the biggest victories in French hockey history. Da Costa scored France’s two regulation goals, while Huet stopped 34 of 36 shots he faced before stoning Kyle Turris, Matt Read and Sean Monahan in the shootout.
Pierre-Edouard Bellemare scored the shootout-winner for France, snapping a shot past Reimer. But Tippett and France coach Dave Henderson each called the shootout a “lottery,” somewhat dismissing it as an element of the game that can go either way.
“The shootout, it’s a weird way to end a hockey game, but it happens,” he said. “You can’t get too high, too low. Anything can happen in a shootout.”
Canada should never have let it get to that point. After falling behind on a power-play goal by Da Costa 17:03 into the first, it trailed for just 2:41 before Brayden Schenn answered just before intermission.
A series of penalties at the end of the second and start of the third period forced Reimer and his teammates to fend off the French down five-on-three. Weathering that storm built up some momentum that should have been beneficial.
When Gudbranson scored 10:42 into the third on a goal that required video review to be determined as good, Canada looked like it would survive. Instead, defenceman Braydon Coburn — a late injury replacement for Marc Methot — turned the puck over to Da Costa, who flipped a backhander in to ignite an anti-Canada, pro-underdog crowd at Chizhovka-Arena and tie it with 7:15 left.
“We should be able to close that game out,” Reimer said. “I think all of us know we’ve got to shut it down there, I’ve got to make a save. I think we made a few mistakes, but that’s to be expected when you’re kind of rusty and coming back and so we’re going to get better every game and we’ll be better next game.”
Asked what went wrong before the shootout, young defenceman Morgan Rielly summed it up in just five words.
“We didn’t play our best,” the 20-year-old said.
Given the history and the talent discrepancy, few thought it would take Canada’s best to beat France. In the two most recent matchups at the world championships, Canada beat France 7-2 in 2012 and 9-1 in 2011.
This was on the opposite end of the spectrum from that.
“You look at that team after they won that game, that’s like winning a Stanley Cup for them,” Tippett said.
From France’s perspective, the victory rivalled beating Russia at this tournament last year in terms of historical significance. Henderson went in telling his players they just had to keep it close, and Huet and Co. made sure they did it.
“We try to give ourselves a chance against anybody,” said Huet, a veteran of 272 career NHL games with the Canadiens, Chicago Blackhawks and Washington Capitals. “I’m not going to lie, for us it’s huge. It’s a good statement and it’s good for our country to beat a team like Canada.”
After losing to an upstart team like France, Gudbranson said Friday night would be about players resetting their minds and refocusing before facing Slovakia on Saturday night. Six preliminary-round games remain for Canada, which is why Tippett hopes to turn this loss into something positive.
“A game like this early shows how hard this tournament is, shows how teams that are trying to climb up in the rankings, how hard they’re going to play against Canada,” he said. “Every team that plays us is going to try to play the best game that they can. That’s very good for our players — our young players that haven’t been in this situation before.
“It’s a good learning lesson for them. We’ll have a quick turnaround, which is good for us, we’ll get Slovakia tomorrow night and hopefully we can be better.”
Canada will have to be better with upcoming games against tougher opponents like Slovakia and the Czech Republic. But even in the minutes after this shocking defeat, players bought into Tippett’s idea that some good can come from losing to France.
“This is a long tournament,” Gudbranson said. “Obviously this isn’t the way we wanted it to play out, there’s no doubt about it. We wanted to come to this tournament and make our staple on it as soon as possible. ... We’re going to go home, get some rest and come back strong and confident tomorrow.”