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Team Canada at the 2012 World Championships

May 13, 2012

Canada has played 6 games at the World Championships and won 5 of them. For sheer stats, the win-loss ratio is right where you’d both want and think it should be. This is Team Canada, after all. However, as always, its not just the wins and losses during the preliminary rounds.

Team Canada is a notoriously slow starter due to everything from a lack of time for the players to practice together to jet lag from being air-lifted in from NHL/AHL teams that have either missed or been eliminated from their league playoffs.  This year would include the fact that apparently some of the players were out enjoying the night-life of Helsinki. Whatever the case, Canada always seems to take a few games to get their ‘legs.’

Canada opened the tournament against the Slovakians, led by the imposing Zdeno Chara. With several current and former NHL-ers on the team, Slovakia was a decent opponent to start off with. Strangely, Game 1 of the 2012 tournament found Canada playing with very few glitches, lines rolling and took but one penalty in the whole game. All in all, a solid 3-2 win with solid contributions from almost everyone and only one blemish – Alex Burrows, playing in his first game in a Team Canada jersey, would leave the game with an apparent concussion.

As teams improve around the world, the number of freebie games at the WHC diminishes.  Additionally, teams typically raise their games when playing Canada, if only to play the role of underdog spoiler.  Also typically, Team Canada plays down to the lowest level in these games instead of coming out and walloping the supposedly lesser team.  Neither case was at issue in Game 2, when Canada took on its most recent top rival – the Americans.

In the modern era, rarely does a player have to be provided any incentive to ‘get up’ for a Canada-US matchup in anything. The countries could play tiddly-winks and there would be a definitive battle for the victory.  The game was a exciting one and after the US opened the scoring early, the  the teams traded goals to a 4-4 tie. Special teams benefited the Americans with two powerplay goals and a shorty.  Team Canada hadn’t gotten theirs fine-tuned quite yet, although they seemed to create some chances.  The duo of Jeff Skinner and John Tavares were easily the most dangerous Canucks and counted for two goals, but it was Tavares who inadvertently found himself in the box to start the overtime period, leading to the winning goal on the powerplay for the US.  Not a terrible loss, but no Canadian ever likes to lose to the Americans, so it stung, especially since Canada had a significantly stronger team (on paper) than they’d sent in several years.

Next up were the French, one of the ‘weaker’ teams in the pool. The opponent allowed  Brent Sutter to try some new line combinations and get Devan Dubnyk some playing time.  Jamie Benn and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins would capture 3 pts apiece to lead Canada to a 7-2 win. Hard to see, but there was some progression with RNH’s contributions after he struggled in the first two games. He’s going to be getting a long, hard look for participation in the upcoming Olympics.

Two days later, Canada faced the Swiss. Not sure why, but Switzerland has always proved to be a very difficult opponent for Canada. Having played a couple of pre-tournament games against the Swiss, one would have thought that Canada might have a good idea of how to play against them. And if not from the exhibitions, history shows that the Swiss play the Canadians hard. Game 4 was no different, tight defence and no space were the orders of the day, not to mention that the Canadians gave up the first goal early in the game. Again.  No success on the powerplay didn’t help either.

The re-vamped line of  Tavares, Skinner and new line-mate Jordan Eberle, led to a tie at the end of the first period and a quick lead in the third. The Swiss would tie the game on the powerplay before Ryan Getzlaf would absolutely blast the puck by Tobias Stephan for the winning goal. A collective sigh of relief from all.

This led to their match against the host and reigning champion Finland. Although attendance had been down all tournament – the Canada – Finland game drew a full house. Presumably the Canadians would feel more comfortable playing against a team that plays a similar style of skill with grit and in front of full stands.  Not so – at least during the first period.  The Finns soared on the energy provided by their SUOMI-chanting partisan crowd (although there were distinct pockets of red amongst the predominant blue and white).

Not only did they take a 2-0 lead early, they crashed the corners, out-skated and out-shot the Canadians.  On their few offensive forays, Team Canada had no cohesive attack and were hard pressed to get the puck to the net. Kari Lehtonen must have thought he was on holiday.  Canada took two straight penalties and didn’t look like they would be able to keep up with the Finns.

After Mikko Koivu scored on the powerplay, Brent Sutter called his time-out to settle his team down.  The disastrous first period couldn’t end soon enough for the Canadians. They wouldn’t come back on the scoreboard, but neither would the Finns add to their lead.  Being down two goals was a blessing considering the Finnish domination. Although there was lots of time left in the game, at the end of that first period, in the back of their minds, Team Canada fans had to wonder if they were about to witness a blow-out.

To the delight of their fans, Team Canada started the second period with all the energy that had been lacking in the first period.  It was as if someone had flipped the ‘ON’ switch.  Suddenly they were winning puck battles, playing the body and looking for all the world as if they really wanted to get back into the game.  Alex Burrows would kick-start the offence with his first goal, but almost immediately afterwards, Skinner would take a blatantly obvious elbowing penalty.  Not only would that kill Canada’s momentum, Jussi Jokinen would restore Finland’s two-goal lead on the powerplay.

After killing yet another penalty, this time to Corey Perry, the Canadians would again dominate the play and were rewarded with their second goal on a one-timer by Tavares, set up by the hard work of Skinner. Under four minutes later, Skinner, determined to make direct amends for his penalty gaffe; drove to the net, froze Lehtonen and scored on a wrap-around play. The game was suddenly tied and the Finns were unexpectedly on their heels.

The Finns would never regain the form with which they started the game.  Evander Kane would give Canada the lead 6 minutes in, potting a rebound off a Perry shot and Canada would never look back.  Finland would take their goalie out to try to even the game, but weren’t able to get a serious shot at Cam Ward. Eberle would finish the scoring into the empty net.  If the first period showed the best of the Finnish game, the second and third showed the resilience of the Canadian game. Score one in the character win column. Adversity met and defeated.

The day after an emotional win against Finland, Team Canada was back on the ice against a Kazakh team that had stretched the Americans to overtime just the day before. There was little history between the teams as this was their first meeting in WHC play and there were few familiar faces on the Kazakh side.  It could have been a recipe for disaster for the youngest team Canada has ever iced at the WHC.

Dubnyk started his second game of the tournament and Ryan Murray drew back in on the blueline.  The Canadians appeared to be shooting from everywhere on the goaltender,Vitali Yeremeyev, who had a cup of coffee with the New York Rangers in 2000. With the first goal of the game coming on a Dion Phaneuf powerplay blast late in the first period, it looked like the Kazakhs might be heading towards a potential upset again.

The second period was much like the first, with the majority of the shots and play in the Kazakh zone. Perry would score an eerily similar goal to that of Jeff Skinner against Finland and Alex Burrows charged down the wing to snipe a short-handed goal past Yeremeyev.  Kazakhstan would continue to stay in the game with Canada taking a couple of penalties and making some nasty turnovers, forcing Dubnyk to make several good saves.

The floodgates opened for Canada at the start of the third period. Kane, Tavares and Teddy Purcell would score within a 50 second period and chase Yeremeyev from the goal.  Despite taking a further three penalties, Team Canada would turn the game into a rout on Phaneuf’s second goal of the game and a final bullet from Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Perhaps it wasn’t only Canada that had to beware the dangers of an emotional win the previous game.

The game would end 8-0 for Canada  who now lead their group’s standings with 5 wins. With a single game left in the preliminary round, there is still a chance that Finland could catch them for the lead heading into the quarterfinals. A win against Belarus on Tuesday would clinch the top seed from their pool.  However, with the additions of the Kostitsyn brothers, Andrei and Sergei, both of the recently eliminated Nashville Predators, Belarus will have its share of NHL fire-power.  The Canadians would be best served by a quick start and concentrated 60 minute effort to close out the preliminary round.

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