When it comes to surprises, the Toronto side of the 2017 world junior hockey championship left them to the Group A games in Montreal where Denmark managed a couple of major upsets.
Down Highway 401 in Toronto, Group B ran to form with Canada and the United States rolling over everyone else to get to a showdown on Saturday afternoon for first place in the tournament's preliminary round. The U.S. defeated Russia 3-2 on Thursday afternoon in a game that was as close to a cliffhanger as anything in Group B came, while Canada took its time getting started but then trounced Latvia 10-2 in the nightcap at the Air Canada Centre.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the tournament is that fans in both Toronto and Montreal were not keen on paying as much as $229 to watch the Canadian teenagers play hockey minnows like Slovakia or Latvia. There were hundreds of empty seats for both those games most others that did not involve the host nation. Sales in Montreal appeared to be worse. And that came after Hockey Canada chief executive officer Tom Renney said the organizers dropped the price of some tickets by 30 per cent after seeing slow sales when the event was in both cities in 2015.
Renney ceded the president's role at Hockey Canada to Scott Smith on Thursday and Smith spent most of his time at his introductory press conference talking about ticket sales. Aside from the prices, the biggest problem in Toronto is that the world junior tournament follows a series of major events, from the World Cup of Hockey in September to another Toronto Blue Jays playoff run to the Grey Cup to the Major League Soccer championship game with Toronto FC.
Smith said all of those other events were added to the sports calendar after Toronto and Montreal were awarded the world junior in 2013. He saw choice being the problem rather than hefty prices for a tournament that some fans consider a lesser draw than a professional championship.
But Smith admitted Hockey Canada was disappointed in the crowds for games not involving Canada. "There are some other games quite frankly that we had hoped to have a larger audience at," he said.
However, with the medal round still a few days away and Canada still favoured to reach the gold-medal game, the tournament organizers said they have sold 80 per cent of their tickets goal, which is $21-million in sales.
It is now a well-established world junior tradition to have Canada and the U.S play each other on New Year's Eve in the last game of the preliminary round. Both teams will take 3-0 records into Saturday's game along with a healthy respect for each other. The winner finishes first in Group B and gets to play the Group A fourth-place finisher on Jan. 2 in the quarter-finals while the loser gets Group A's third-place team in the medal round.
A game between the Canadians and Americans in this tournament is still a hot item for the fans and by Thursday night only single seats remained available on Ticketmaster's web site. The Americans know they are in for a hostile reception from the ACC crowd.
"It's a game you grow up watching, that New Year's Eve game," U.S. defenceman Charlie McAvoy said after his team won its first game against Russia at this tournament since 2007. "To have it in Canada here, you grow up seeing that, we're not going to be liked that's for sure. We're not expecting much love, it's going to be us against kind of their whole country."
While the final score showed there was little doubt in the difference between Canada and Latvia, the Canadians showed they were looking ahead to the U.S. in the early going. The Latvians outworked them through most of the first period, taking a 7-3 lead in shots at one point and outshooting Canada 10-9 for the period.
But Matt Barzal scored a breakaway shorthanded goal midway through the first period that got the Canadians moving. By the end of the second it was 8-1 and essentially over.
The Canadians do have at least one question going into Saturday's game against the U.S. Carter Hart was expected to be the No. 1 goaltender for Canada going into the tournament but his uneven play in the pre-tournament games and a so-so outing in the preliminary round against Russia gave Connor Ingram a chance to grab the job.
Hart was back in goal Thursday after sitting out Tuesday's easy win over Slovakia but he still needed a top performance to ensure a start against the Americans. A lack of focus and preparation were the knocks against Hart coming into the tournament and his play against the Latvians left those questions still dangling.
With Canada up 8-1 late in the second period, Hart allowed a soft shorthanded goal to Latvia's Renars Krastenbergs when he whiffed on a wrist shot. Granted, by that point with Canada scoring five goals in the second period it was hard for any goalie to stay awake, but this was no time for someone trying to nail down a position to waver.
But Canadian head coach Dominique Ducharme declined to tip his hand on a starting goaltender for the U.S. game.
"With the penalties we took [in the first period] he was solid in there," Ducharme said of Hart. "I thought he had a good game."
Taylor Raddysh led the Canadian scorers with four goals, including three consecutive goals starting late in the first period. That tied a record for most goals in one game in this tournament for a Canadian. Raddysh joined some exclusive company with Mario Lemieux (1983), Simon Gagne (1999) and Brayden Schenn (2011), who also scored four goals in one game.
"You never really picture yourself being in the same status as them," Raddysh said. "It was a fun game. I've just got to take it for what I did."
Barzal also managed multiple goals with two for the Canadians. The others were scored by Nicolas Roy, Anthony Cirelli, Michael McLeod and Julien Gauthier.