The paint will be coming off the walls in Canada’s dressing room in Malmo.
Brent Sutter’s perfect record in the World Junior Hockey Championship is no more after the Czechs stunned the Canadians with a 5-4 shootout win in round-robin play. More concerning than the loss is the way with which the Canadians lost the game with yet another slow start, crucial faceoffs lost and a largely un-Canadian style.
DOES THIS LOSS BUILD CHARACTER FOR CANADA?
It’s rare the Canadians are challenged in this tournament before New Year’s Eve, when the usual top two teams in a group meet. This game felt in so many ways like a medal-round contest, particularly with a wild and unpredictable third period. The positive for Canada is that this loss came so early, the team realizes just how hard they’ll need to work in order to find success in a tournament where the field is growing tighter with each passing year.
In years past, this type of wakeup call would only come once the games are in a winner-take-all elimination game. Canadian teams in this tournament have a tendency to fall into a false sense of security, and believe they can turn the switch back on whenever needed. The pushback from the Czechs in this loss should convince the players now they need to keep the foot on the gas pedal at all times.
WHERE DID THE NET-FRONT PRESENCE GO?
Just two days earlier, the Canadians generated much of their offence from establishing a net-front presence and beating defenders to rebounds. Granted, that was against a much weaker opponent from Germany, but the bread-and-butter of the Canadian game is in throwing the puck on net and grinding out the rebounds.
It wasn’t until the Canadians trailed 3-2 midway through the third period that they tried bulling their way to the crease and making Czech goaltender Marek Langhamer’s life difficult. Scott Laughton went hard to the net and his shot created the rebound for Aaron Ekblad to fire top corner to tie the game. Following that goal, the Canadian forwards re-established the presence in front of the net, but by then it was too little too late.
TENTATIVE DEFENCE FROM CANADA
With Griffin Reinhart still sitting out due to a suspension and Mathew Dumba playing through the flu, Canada’s defence could use a shot in the arm right now. The defence played fairly well through the first 40 minutes, but when the intensity raised as the teams went back and forth, Canadian defenders were looking more tentative.
They were guilty of watching the puck on the Czechs’ first two goals when the red shirts far outnumbered the white jerseys in front of their net. It will be a big concern for Sutter and his coaching staff because his defence wasn’t boxing out and getting the rebounds first. The Czechs scored their goals by stealing Canada’s game-plan by establishing their net-front presence and getting rebounds.
The Czechs’ two goals in the third period were also due to winning offensive zone face-offs, another big concern for the coaching staff. The Czechs were hungrier around both goals, and the scoreboard reflected it.
SLOW STARTS CONCERNING
Canada’s troubling trend continues as each of the five games it has played in round robin and exhibition resulted in the opening goal by the opposition. Nothing will infuriate a coach more than consistently playing from behind.
When teams like the Germans and Czechs are opening the scoring against Canada, it gives them a vote of confidence and enables them to get into a defensive system. The Czechs took full advantage of their first goal by settling into a defensive bubble where all five players stood between the red and blue line.
The trap is the natural choice for a team playing with lesser talent, and the Czechs did an excellent job keeping the Canadians to the outside and shielding the middle and slot. These are the consequences that come from playing with a deficit, and until Canada starts scoring first, the execution of their game-plan is in question, particularly once they begin meeting teams like Sweden, USA and Russia.
CANADA ADAPTS TO CZECHS, LEAVES GAME BEHIND
The net-front presence was exchanged in the first two periods for a more skilled approach that generated results everywhere but the scoreboard. Team Canada adapted to the Czechs’ defensive bubble with multiple quick passes through the defensive diamond formation and finding the open man in the middle.
The Canadians used quick passes to catch the Czechs out of position, and it worked well enough for Canada to get some open looks from the slot – as it did on Sam Reinhart’s goal in the first period. The Canadian defence activated off the rush and was able to get some open looks in the slot from passes behind the net. It was understandable why this approach was kept considering the offence it generated, but the results weren’t there. When Canada forces the issue by driving the net, as Laughton did on the third goal, the results generally come.
This loss only helps illustrate that the Canadians should play their style rather than taking what the opposition gives them.