Brent Sutter seemed to be in a nasty mood at practice the morning after Canada’s biggest win so far at the world junior hockey championship.
The veteran coach was barking orders and slamming his stick at missed plays on Wednesday, as if his team had lost the night before instead of pulling out a 3-2 victory over the defending champion United States to take first place in its preliminary round group.
But the shouting had a tactical side.
He didn’t want his team feeling too good about themselves heading into the single-game knockout part of the tournament.
Canada plays its quarter-final on Thursday against the Swiss, who finished fourth in the other group but who have shown they can pull off upsets against teams that take them lightly.
On paper, it’s a game Canada should win handily, but that may be what Finland thought when they lost to the Swiss in a shootout in their final round robin game.
“They’re a disciplined hockey team,” said Sutter. “They’ve kept games close.
“They’re in this position for a reason. They’re a very structured team. You’ve got to be disciplined in your game when you play them. You can’t get frustrated.”
Canada beat the Swiss 4-1 in an exhibition game Dec. 23, profiting from five power plays to build a 2-0 first period lead. At one point, there were four Swiss players in the penalty box.
Despite the loss, the Swiss came out of the game feeling good about their chances.
“We know their players now,” said Swiss goalie Melvin Nyffeler. “They’ve got a pretty good power play.
“Last game we lost because they had so many power plays. Now we’re looking forward to playing them and let’s see. In hockey, anything’s possible. We have a chance against anybody.”
Canada went into its showdown with the Americans needing to win in regulation time to take over first place. They did it with a two-goal third period and some brilliant saves from Zach Fucale.
But a day later, Sutter made sure to remind them they haven’t won anything yet. As well as Canada played against the Americans, he said “I don’t want to see it slip.
“When you get to this point, every game is like a Game 7. We have to make sure our emotions are in control and our details are good. It doesn’t matter who your opponent is, you have to be at the top of your game. We’ve got to practice like it’s for keeps. You can’t just turn a switch on.”
Finishing first was a bonus on paper as it gave Canada a quarter-final against Switzerland and, if they win that, a semifinal against either the Czech Republic or Finland. The Americans now must face Russia in the quarter-finals and, if they manage a win, play the winner of Sweden-Slovakia in the semis.
Sutter understands what it takes to win tournaments. He guided Canadian teams to gold medals at the 2005 and 206 world juniors without losing a game. His record at the tournament is 15-0-1.
Canada improved from game to game as it built a 3-0-1 record in the preliminary round, and the coaching staff was active.
Through three pre-tournament exhibitions and four round robin games, lines have been juggled and re-juggled. Centres play on the wings and move back to centre.
In Curtis Lazar’s case, you play left wing, right wing and centre in the same tournament.
“You’ve got to think the game well, have a good hockey IQ, and make sure you have a third guy high all the time,” Lazar said Wednesday. “I’m just trying to better myself so I can be prepared for all these situations.”
Sutter said there isn’t time in a tournament to build chemistry on the ice. Players have to adapt immediately or changes will be made.
Nine of the 13 forwards are centres on their club teams, so five have to play on the wings.
“It’s a matter of finding what they’re most comfortable with when they’re playing wing,” said Sutter. “They can’t all play centre, so who they can play with as pairs and threesomes to feel comfortable?
“It’s been a revolving door. There’s not really a plan in place. You just have a feel for your team. If something’s not working, you’ve got to change. You don’t have time to let it progress over a month. If something’s not working or someone’s not playing well, you have to change it up quickly.”
There were two moves of note against the U.S., moving Lazar off left wing to the right side, and switching Frederik Gauthier from the wing to centre, where the Toronto Maple Leafs prospect used his considerable size to win some key defensive zone faceoffs.
Sutter had particular praise for Lazar, who has scored in consecutive games while still playing well defensively.
“We started him on left wing because that’s where he finished the game before, but we talked after the first period,” he said. “He was having a bit of difficulty at that position, so I moved him back to right wing and he got his game back to where it was before.
“He’s most comfortable on right wing or centre ice. He’s been one of our best forwards, if not our best, so we have to make sure he’s feeling comfortable.”
He had similar praise for 18-year-old Sam Reinhart, a centre who has played mostly right wing.
“He plays 5-on-5, power plays, penalty killing, 5-on-3,” he said. “He and Curtis, as far as forwards go, have been very adaptable and have been our most complete players in that they can be put into any situation.”
At practice, Reinhart skated with centre Bo Horvat and captain Scott Laughton, while Lazar was with centre Nic Petan and 16-year-old Connor McDavid. Gauthier centred Kerby Rychel and Josh Anderson, while Jonathan Drouin was between Taylor Leier and Anthony Mantha.
Charles Hudon missed practice to treat a shoulder injured in Canada’s 5-3 win over Slovakia on Saturday.
“It doesn’t really matter where we play because we’re all pretty different,” said Laughton, a centre playing on left wing. “We all don’t really know each other.
“Right now, we’ve got four complete lines that can work and all have size, so I think we’re pretty set on the lines right now.”
Petan and Rychel both signed entry-level NHL contracts this week — Petan with the Winnipeg Jets and Rychel with Columbus.
“I was pretty cool,” the diminutive Petan said. “It was a good New Years’ present.”