At the 4:05 mark of the third period, Canada’s world junior tournament opener against Finland ground to a brief and unexpected halt for the best possible reason. So many hats were cascading out of the stands to celebrate Mark Stone’s third goal of the game that the arena crew in Edmonton needed bags and bags to gather them all up.
By then, the party had already started. Canada had built a six-goal cushion in what turned out to be an authoritative 8-1 victory over a jittery Finnish team.
Pressure is a funny thing in sport, especially when you’re a teenager competing on the world stage for the first time. Especially when you’re Canadian, skating on home ice, in a nation that has made an annual obsession of this tournament, and you’re trying to strike gold after back-to-back silvers.
Canada’s relatively inexperienced players more than rose to the opening challenge, beginning with the player bearing the biggest albatross of all, goaltender Mark Visentin. Mr. Visentin was the starter last year when it all came apart for Canada in a 5-3 loss to Russia in the gold-medal game.
Coach Don Hay kept his goaltending plans under wraps until the last minute before opting to go with Mr. Visentin on Monday, largely because he’d played in the tournament before.
Mr. Visentin was as steady as he needed to be in a game that was never really in doubt. It was a good, but ultimately inconclusive, beginning for him, given how Canada jumped out to a quick 2-0 lead before the Finns managed even their first shot on goal.
Things will get tougher as the calibre of the opponent improves.
What people sometimes forget about the world junior championships is that the preliminary round represents little more than an elaborate, week-long dress rehearsal. Six of the top 10 teams advance to the playoff round, where the pressure really ramps up because every contest becomes an elimination game, with the winner moving on and the loser going home, until the gold medal is decided at the end of next week.
Canada has played for the gold medal in each of the last 10 tournaments, but its loss in last year’s final against Russia has been weighing on Mr. Visentin and the other three returnees from that team – Jaden Schwartz, Quinton Howden and Brett Connolly – for going on 12 months now.
That was the other challenge this time around – dealing with the inexperience on the current roster, because so many players still eligible for the tournament (including top draft choices Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jeff Skinner and Tyler Seguin) are all plying their trade in the NHL.
Their absence pushed a new generation of players into the spotlight, and it was primarily those newcomers, led by Mr. Stone and Jonathan Huberdeau, who shone. Mr. Stone’s strong play is particularly heartening to the fans of the NHL’s Ottawa Senators, who selected him way down in the sixth round of the entry draft, making him a long shot to play in the NHL.
But Mr. Stone has made great strides in his skating, and his shooting touch was never much in question. It made for a long day in the nets for Finland’s Christopher Gibson, who has a British father and speaks English with a charming French accent, given that he plays with the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Chicoutimi Sagueneens.
Mr. Gibson noted beforehand that playing in this tournament was a dream come true. By the time eight goals had leaked past him, the dream had turned into a nightmare, with the Canadian players feeding off the crowd noise and using the support to quiet whatever jitters they may have felt.
This is Mr. Hay’s second time coaching in the world junior tournament, after guiding the 1995 team to a gold medal. Mr. Hay believes the biggest challenge in this sort of event is turning a disparate group of talented players into a genuine team in a short period of time.
Teams, not single players, Mr. Hay believes, win championships. By preaching a team-first mantra, Mr. Hay says the pressure lessens on all the individual parts.
Beating Finland – as the hats rained down in the third period – was a good, almost perfect beginning, but nothing more. The real tests come next week; only then will we know if Canada truly has what it takes to celebrate elusive gold.