How often can you say a penalty-killer is a poster boy for a big international hockey win?
Casey Cizikas was not an official player of the game, as picked after every game at the world junior tournament, but the Canadian forward was arguably the catalyst for his team's 6-3 win over Russia on Sunday. Until he turned in a superb display of penalty-killing midway through the first period, the Canadians were a nervous bunch, trying too hard to live up to their tag as a hard-hitting bunch by going out of their way for the big bodycheck, only to see the puck land on opposing sticks.
That was the reason the Russians took the game to the Canadians for the first 10 minutes and it was why they scored the game's first goal at 3:57. Two Canadian players tried for big hits in their own end, only to see Russian forward Maxim Kitsyn wind up all by himself at the top of the left faceoff circle. He put a bullet over goaltender Olivier Roy's shoulder to put the Russians ahead.
"The big reason was simply nerves," Canadian coach Dave Cameron said of his players' early overaggressiveness. "They were trying to make something big happen on every shift. But we tightened up in that area."
Cameron can thank Cizikas, who plays for him on the Mississauga St. Michael's Majors in the Ontario Hockey League, for that. Cizikas gave his teammates and the pro-Canadian crowd of 18,690 at HSBC Arena a textbook example of penalty-killing. He was aggressive when he needed to be, eschewing the big hit for a terrific display of fore-checking that kept the Russians bottled up in their own zone.
When the Mississauga native finished his shift, the capacity crowd recognized his work with a loud ovation. So did his teammates, who dialled back their own aggression but kept their physical edge, especially around the Russian net. The Canadians then took charge of the game in the last half of the first period and pulled ahead in the third when another problem area, the power play, kicked into gear.
"Probably," Cizikas, 19, said with a laugh when he was asked if that was the best penalty-killing shift of his career. "I don't know how long it was. I just wanted to stay strong on the puck."
Cizikas said he was aware of the appreciation from the fans, but was too tired to pay much attention.
"It was definitely something special," he said. "I was just trying to get some air in my body because I was gassed."
He agreed that he and his teammates were trying too hard to run the Russians through the boards in the early going and that it was a symptom of nerves.
"Yeah, you could say that," Cizikas said. "Guys wanted to get in the game their own way, so the first shift they're trying to take the body."
The coaches had a lot to say at the end of the first period, telling the Canadian players to stop going out of their way to make a hit. Fortunately for them, the damage was minimal, as the score was tied 1-1, but that was because the tournament is being played on the smaller NHL ice surface. If it were in Europe, with the larger international ice, taking yourself way out of position to make a hit can result in a slew of goals, as many a North American has discovered.
Things did not completely fall into place following Cizikas's heroics. The Canadians were still guilty of making mistakes in the wake of nice plays. They took leads of 2-1 and 3-2 in the second period, only to see the Russians tie the score in less than two minutes each time.
It was not until the Russians took two penalties in the first five minutes of the third period that the game swung Canada's way for good. The power play, which operated in fits and starts in three exhibition games and the first 40 minutes on Sunday, came through both times.