Sober second thought is always the first casualty whenever Canada suffers what, at first blush, appears to be a mortal wound on the international hockey stage, something that happened Thursday in faraway Ufa, Russia. After a nifty 4-0 run through the preliminary round, Canada’s world juniors were resoundly defeated 5-1 by the United States in the semi-final and eliminated from gold-medal contention.
Immediately, the temptation was to turn that single result into a referendum on the state of hockey in Canada. It can’t be that. It should never be that. One game – won or lost – does not a program make. Any team in any sport can lose a single game because that is the nature of competition. Teams that win Stanley Cup champions always lose multiple games en route to a championship. The whole point of playing a two-month tournament for the top prize in professional hockey is to eliminate the chance of coming up dead flat in a single game, the way Canada did against the United States.
First, a few thoughts on the specifics: If the Americans did one thing better than the Canadians, it was in the way they had their defencemen pinch up at every turn. In the first meeting between the teams, Canada did a good job of getting in on the fore-check, and forcing the Americans to retreat back into their own ends and play a 200-foot game. Not so this time.
The U.S. defenders, in particular the Buffalo Sabres’ draft choice Jake McCabe, were constantly up on the play. Remember how John Carlson scored the winner in OT against Canada three years ago, on the four-on-four rush? The sort of activation, you saw all game against the Canadians. It created all sorts of turnovers by the Canadians – in the defensive zone, or just outside the defensive zone – and pretty soon, all that pressure resulted in pucks past goaltender Malcolm Subban.
Then there is the matter of the tournament format, which keeps getting tweaked every so often and will get tweaked again next year when the bye into the semi-final is eliminated and every team will need to play in a quarter-final match. Once upon a time, the general rule of thumb was that an extra day’s rest, which Canada earned by going undefeated early, was valuable because it permitted you to play a potentially tired team to open the medal round.
That theory has been proved wrong on multiple fronts, including the last great Canadian international victory – in Vancouver, at the Olympics – when playing an extra game because they finished second in the preliminary round (behind the United States) actually gave the Canadians more time to get their act together. It was the same with the Americans at this junior tournament, where they were a modest 1-2 out of the gate and couldn’t buy a goal. But they managed to get it going against the Slovaks by scoring nine goals to qualify for the second round and once their offence got started, it just kept rolling – 21 goals in all during the last three games, seven of them by John Gaudreau, the Calgary Flames’ prospect who bears more than just a little resemblance to Joey Mullen, another pint-sized American who thrived in the pros.
No, on this day, in this venue, at that precise moment in time, the Americans were the better team.
If you want to speak rationally about player development, however, a better approach is to analyze the world junior tournaments held in NHL lockout years because that is the only time every country gets its best under-20 players together.
Canada had Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Mark Scheifele, Ryan Strome, Dougie Hamilton and others who wouldn’t have been available this year if NHL play had started on time, in the same way it had Patrice Bergeron, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Shea Weber in North Dakota (2005) and Jason Allison, Ryan Smyth and others in Red Deer (1995). Those three tournaments span three generations of players and until they lost to the Americans, Canada had been 18-0 in the years when its best available talent was actually at its disposal.
Every year, there’s someone new to get excited about and the creative and talented 17-year-old Jonathan Drouin was that player this year, even if he – like the rest of his teammates – came out flat in the semi-final. It was disappointing, yes. It was hard to see coming, yes. But it isn’t the end of the world either.
Canada won gold at this event in years past by benefiting from a little bit of puck luck. Other times, Canada lost gold when its opponents were a luckier. It’s not much of a consolation maybe, but luck wasn’t a factor in the equation this time. The Americans had the better game plan and they had the better execution as well. It happens in hockey and – news flash – as long as hockey continues to matter in the United States, Russia and Sweden, it’ll happen again.