He played like a superhero so they gave him a black cape to wear for the occasion.
On the back it said “The Reason,” and that is exactly what Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was following a five-point outing in Team Canada’s 9-3 waxing of Germany in the Canadians’ opening match Wednesday afternoon at the 2013 world junior hockey championship.
The cape was the idea of head coach Steve Spott and his assistants – a symbolic award that will be given out each time the team wins.
“It’s an honour to be the first to get it,” said Nugent-Hopkins, who admitted to dreaming far more of Stanley Cups than superheroes when he was a child.
This facile victory, however, was not so much a game as a practice.
Things to work on, things to take comfort in, things perhaps to worry about down the line. The Canadians will next face Slovakia on Friday, with far sterner tests to come from the likes of Russia and the United States.
In a city where the passengers clap when an Aeroflot passenger jet makes a landing, you need to be cautious with your enthusiasms. And yet there were undeniably good things to measure as Team Canada ran over its outclassed opponent.
First to applaud is the play of Nugent-Hopkins, who seems, at times, to be the only one on skates out there, moving up and down the ice so effortlessly it appears he is playing in the Russian space station rather than the Ufa Arena.
“He has to be our leader,” said Spott of the player he chose to name captain.
From the opening faceoff, which the talented centre won with a deft pivot, kick of the puck to his own stick and back pass, “RNH,” as he is known when playing for the Edmonton Oilers of the defunct National Hockey League, was able to dominate every shift as he scored once and set up four other goals.
It is important to remember this was Germany, which has now lost 11 in a row against the Canadians in world junior play. And yet, the play of Nugent-Hopkins was exceptional by any measure. He set up Canada’s first goal on a nice play that saw Xavier Ouellet guide a pass into the German net during Canada’s first power play. He scored the second after slipping a neat pass to linemate Jonathan Huberdeau and then moving, wisp-like, into position in front of the German net where he calmly clipped a backhand into the far side.
RNH was key, as well, to Canada’s third goal, this one a short-handed effort when Mark Scheifele was allowed to tap the puck in following a Nugent-Hopkins shot. On the fourth he slipped a perfect pass to defenceman Dougie Hamilton, who got the puck to Huberdeau, who was able to find the short side. And on the seventh goal of the afternoon contest, the three top linemates – Nugent-Hopkins, Huberdeau and Scheifele – finished off a neat tic-tac-toe play with Scheifele scoring his second of the game.
Scheifele said that following the team’s stretch during the warm-up, the three gathered together and vowed to “show that we are a line to be reckoned with” throughout the tournament. And for Canada to win the gold medal after three years of coming up short, the threesome will have to show that every game.
“We wanted to lead out there in a bunch of ways,” said Nugent-Hopkins. And they did, inspiring the less-talented lines to pitch in when they could. Other Canadian goals went to Ty Rattie, Ryan Strome, 17-year-old Jonathan Drouin and, on a nice one-timer, defenceman Tyler Wotherspoon.
Spott and his assistants could take some comfort in this outing, but not a great deal, as the Canadians were never tested as they surely will be against far better teams than Germany.
The Germans, after all, showed no ability to catch on to predictable patterns. On nearly every power-play rush, Nugent-Hopkins swooped out over centre with the puck and then, just before the opposition blueline, dropped it back to a rushing defenceman.
You don’t require much of the alphabet to read that one, as other teams surely will in the games to come.
The concern going into this tournament was that the Canadians were somewhat undisciplined – shocking as this might sound – and would need to show caution on plays that brings cheers in Canadian junior rinks but bring whistles in international play.
Sure enough, once the Canadians began to take penalties, they got into trouble. With J.C. Lipon off for kneeing, the Germans were able to snare the Canadians in their own end, allowing Dominik Kahun to slide a perfect cross-crease pass to Tobias Rieder and Rieder had the open side of the net to fire the puck past Canadian goaltender Malcolm Subban.
The Germans scored again when 17-year-old Leon Draisaitl, who plays for the Prince Albert Raiders and was, by far, the best of the Germans, fed a perfect pass to Leonhard Pfoderl, who beat Subban on a backhand.
The Germans made it 6-3 when Canadian centre Mark McNeill committed a huge gaffe off the draw, handing the puck to German forward Nickolas Latta, who scored on a wrist shot.
The Canadians stayed clear of the penalty box later on, much to the relief of Spott. But he did note that, even against the outclassed Germans, his team was still adjusting to the larger international ice surface.
“We want to get to guys quicker,” he said, in particular when other teams are cycling in the corners and looking for the quick pass and shot.
“We want to get better every day,” Spott added.
As goal-scoring had been a concern during the juniors camp and exhibition outings, it had to be some relief to Spott to see nine goals go in off Canadian sticks.
He must, however, have also been thinking of the three that went in off German sticks. Goaltending has been a Canadian uncertainty since summer. Subban was superb on glove saves, excellent in traffic and reflex saves, not so good on the second and third goals.
In the third period, however, he made one spectacular pad save off Rieder, who appeared again to have the open side.
“I got the nerves a little bit,” Subban said of his play in the first two periods, but felt calm and confident in the third – not surprisingly, with the Canadian lead then in no danger.
“Our plan is to run with Malcolm,” Spott said, indicating Subban will get the start Friday. Should Subban struggle, Jordan Binnington would replace him in net.
The spotty crowd, however, showed no worry whatsoever with the victorious Canadians. Certainly those cheering for Canada would have felt entirely at home in the Ufa Arena, with the rinkboards promoting such sponsors as Air Canada, Timber Mart, Canadian Tire (“Canada’s Hockey Store”), Telus, Purolator, Boston Pizza and RBC.
And when they applauded, they had good cause to cheer.
For it was undeniable that the Canadians had landed.
And landed well.