Ron Tugnutt knows that shots count - in more ways than one.
The goaltending coach of Team Canada was, after all, in the Pittsburgh Penguins' net that remarkable night and early morning of May 4-5, 2000 when, after 152:01 of play, the Philadelphia Flyers' 72nd shot of the night got past him to put an end to the fifth overtime.
Such experience put Tugnutt in a bit of a Catch-22 watching Canada's early games at the world juniors. While he naturally cheers for his team - which has now won three straight following Canada's 8-2 victory over Slovakia last night - he had also found himself hoping, quietly, secretly, that one of those early opponents might break through and challenge one of his two charges: Jake Allen, who started against Latvia and Switzerland, and Martin Jones, who got the assignment against Slovakia.
It hadn't happen in the first two games. At one point in the third period of Canada's second game, in fact, Canada had scored as many goals, 21, as the two opponents had in total shots.
The first two games had resulted in a combined score of 22-0 (16-0 versus Latvia, 6-0 against the Swiss), and perhaps 2.5 of the opposition shots could be counted a challenge for a top-level junior goaltender like Allen or Martin.
"I would have liked for them to get 20 shots on [Allen]when the score was 6-0," said Tugnutt, "but it didn't happen."
It had to happen this night against the Slovakians, however. Had to happen, and did. The Slovaks have NHL-bound players like Tomas Tatar, a Detroit Red Wings prospect who is already playing in the American Hockey League and who stood fourth in scoring at last year's World Juniors in Ottawa. And Tatar is not alone. Richard Panik is a Windsor Spitfires linemate of several of Team Canada's best, including Taylor Hall and Ryan Ellis.
"They're going to put up good numbers," predicted Team Canada coach Willie Desjardins.
He was right, even if the numbers put up weren't in the place most hoped for by the Slovaks.
Slovakia claimed the first shot of the game - a long snap shot from the stick of Andrej Stastny - and was soon up 3-1 in shots, at least. Unfortunately for the Slovaks, though, Canada scored on its second shot, its third shot and its fourth shot - for a 3-0 lead on a mere four shots.
It was a marvelous display of the hyper-importance of goaltending in such a tournament. Slovakia, in fact, should have had an early lead, having hit a goalpost (Tartar), having an excellent slapshot chance from the slot that Jones easily smothered and having one hard shot go off Jones, off the glass and then off Jones' back, just trickling wide.
The goaltending of Marek Ciliak at the other end, on the other hand, was so dismal that he was pulled after letting in three of Canada's first four shots. He was replaced by Tomas Halasz, who performed better but still could not stop the mighty Canadians, who outshot the Slovaks 35-27. Soon enough the Canadians were running away with the game, Hall had a hattrick, and the Slovaks had to settle for being the first team to score a goal against Canada when Panik, on a Slovak power play, swept a rebound past Jones.
The Canadians won easily, 8-2, on goals by Brayden Schenn, Alex Pietrangelo, Ryan Ellis, Luke Adam and Stefan Della-Rovere to go with Hall's three.
"It was a fun night for me," said Hall, who finally broke out of his short-term scoring drought. "I've never had hats coming down before, so it felt good."
"Sometimes you've just got to sit there and watch and say 'Wow,'" said teammate Pietrangelo of Hall's dominant performance.
Martin Bakos scored late in the game for Slovakia. Though they only scored twice, the Slovaks were by far the best team Canada has yet played.
"It was certainly our toughest game to date," said Canadian coach Willie Desjardins. "We had our hands full today, for sure."
"The score wasn't indicative of the game," said Hall.
"Canada is a perfect team," said a disappointed Tatar. "We made terrible mistakes on defence."
Canada wasn't "perfect," of course, having let in two goals after more than two-and-a-half games of shutout hockey. Yet the Canadians seemed glad to have their goaltending finally tested - and no one was happier than Tugnutt.
"These early games are tough," said goaltending coach. "It would have been easy to kind of lay back and lay off teams, but these guys haven't done that, which means Jake didn't see any work."
Tugnutt's advice to his two young charges: "Be very vocal." He wants them yelling at the defence even when yelling isn't necessary. Even if they do their own play-by-play - as Team Canada goalie Jeff Glass says he did during Canada's dominant gold-medal run in 2005 at Grand Forks.
"That's how you stay in the game."
Allen, by beginning this tournament with two easy shutouts, now stands within reach of the junior tournament record of three, set by Canada's Justin Pogge four years ago.
Traditionally, Canada's goaltending has been strong, but it has also proved pivotal in past championships. Canada's gold medal victories in Leksand, Sweden, in 2007 was largely by grace of Carey Price's play in the Canadian nets - helped, of course, by the shootout brilliance of Jonathon Toews. And Steve Mason's netminding was largely credited with bringing gold to Canada in the Czech Republic in 2008.
It can also work the other way. Marc-Andre Fleury, expected to be named today to Canada's Olympic team, was the unfortunate goat in Finland back in 2004 when he left his net to race USA's Patrick O'Sullivan to a sliding puck. Fleury's clearing attempt bounced off his own defenceman into the Canadian net. It gave the U.S.A. the gold medal on a 4-3 victory.
It has been said that the importance of goaltending in Stanley Cup play is equal or more important to pitching in the World Series, but in international play - where it eventually comes down to single game do-or-die - the position can prove even more pivotal.
Goaltending may not decide Canada's fate in this tournament, but at least now that there have been a few tough shots sent their way it is fair to say they are unlikely to decide it the wrong way.Report Typo/Error