Just what the doctor ordered – a good scare.
Team Canada, which is not the perfect heavenly creation Canadians regularly expect at this time of year, had its plusses and minuses sorely displayed and tested Friday when they rallied from a humiliating 3-1 deficit to gain an important 6-3 win over pesky Slovakia.
“It was a huge character win for us,” said Canadian forward Ty Rattie.
“We stayed with it,” added Canadian captain Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
“I think it gives us a lot of confidence,” said forward Mark Scheifele, who was named “Player of the Game” for Canada .
Nothing had been expected of the Slovakians going into the tournament and yet they had already taken one favourite, Russia, to overtime before losing 3-2 and seemed on the verge of steamrolling over another favourite, Canada, before the Canadians shook off their jet-lag and played the way they are expected to play.
There will be much to work on before the Canadians take on Team U.S.A., yet another World -Junior-Championship favourite, on Sunday.
Despite earlier warnings, it appeared the Canadians had failed to factor in the Slovaks’ speed and smarts with the puck. An abysmal opening few minutes got only worse when Canadian forward J.C. Lipon took a five-minute and match penalty for a check to the head area.
Slovakia went ahead 2-0 on the ensuing power play when Tomas Mikus ripped a shot from the slot that knocked Canadian goaltender Malcolm Subban’s water bottle all the way to Kazakhstan.
The Slovaks had scored earlier on an embarrassing play when forward Brett Ritchie failed to cover his man in front of the net and Marko Dano was able to tap in a rebound. The puck moved so slowly behind Subban that Dano could have signed it on the way in.
Canada seemed listless through the opening period. They could not contain the swift Slovaks and could not figure out goaltender Adam Nagy on the few chances they had to score.
Whatever head coach Steve Spott said or did not say during the intermission must have awakened the Canadians. They came out with fire – at times too much. Down 2-1 following a goal by Ryan Strome in which he was allowed to swoop the entire Slovak end before firing a hard shot that beat Nagy, Canada seemed to blow Strome’s gift when Anthony Camara totaled Slovak defenceman Patrik Luza in the Slovakian end.
Luza was hit so hard he seemed unconscious before hitting the ice and was taken off by stretcher to jeering whistles from the sparse Slovak fans and angry shouts of “Keep your head up!” from Canadians in attendance.
Camara was given Canada’s second five minutes and a major penalty for the infraction, which visibly upset the Canadian bench. Spott claimed that Camara was told on the ice by one official that it was a “clean hit” only to be called back from the bench for the penalty.
Spott thought the Slovaks guilty of embellishing their falls in order to draw penalties and suggest if Scheifele had stayed on the ice after one hard hit the Slovaks would have been caught just as the Canadians were.
“Our boys don’t lie down,” said a defiant Spott. “They’ll drag themselves off the ice before they’ll lie down.
“[But] these are the cards we are dealt over here. We understand there is a different standard.”
The International Ice Hockey Federation later decided Camara would face no further discipline, however, Lipon will have a hearing on Saturday morning. If the Kamloops Blazer is suspended, Canada will be minus both him and Jenner for Sunday’s game against the United States.
Players and coaches agreed that the penalty became a rallying point for the team even though, shortly after the Camara penalty, Strome took a bad tripping penalty and the Slovaks were up 3-1 on a nice one-timer by Marko.
But then, finally, the tide began to turn.
It was soon the Slovaks taking the dumb penalties and paying for them. “We should have played our emotions better,” said Mikus. “After the two injuries we didn’t control our emotions well – we should have played with a clean mind.”
The awakened Canadians pulled to within one goal when defenceman Morgan Reilly fired one past Nagy from the high slot. They tied the game 3-3 when Rattie was able to tap in a goal from the side.
Canada moved in front when Mark Scheifele managed to tip a floating wrist shot from the blueline, causing the puck to shift direction and flutter softly by a startled Nagy.
Very quickly in the third captain Nugent-Hopkins, the caped hero of Canada’s 9-3 win over Germany, moved the Canadians to 5-3 on a deft backhand. Up until this point, he had been unnoticeable on the ice.
The Canadians moved to 6-3 on Strome’s second goal of the afternoon and from that point on the game was entirely academic.
But not just the game, the games to come as well, as Team Canada has much to study and, hopefully, learned much from this game they almost blew.
First comes the continuing question of undisciplined play. There is no doubt the referees in Europe call matters that would pass in Canadian major junior hockey, but complaining will never change the standards here to the standards that pertain back home. They have to learn to take fewer penalties.
Second is the yips. The Canadians have trouble under sustained pressure. They lose their composure in their own end at times.
And third, undeniably, is the goaltending. Much has been made of failures in the past and much has already been made as to which goaltender, Subban or Jordan Binnington should be in the Canadian net.
Spott has said he will ride Subban as long as he can, even if for the entire tournament. Yet Subban was, at times, very shaky against the Slovaks. It wasn’t so much the goals that went in – two he could not be faulted on – but the fat rebounds, the dropped catches, the dangerous angles he displayed this game.
It is a familiar situation for Canadian junior teams in recent years.
Lots to work on; little time. But no one wants to play catch-up against the United States or Russia, Canada’s next two matches.
“We don’t want to do that in too many games,” Scheifele said in the understatement of the day.