If ever the Canadian player of the game cape were awarded to staff, Steve Spott would enter the mix zone looking like a superhero.
There was hardly a move the head coach didn’t anticipate as the Canadian world junior team finished the round robin portion with a picture perfect record and a 4-1 win over the host Russians. Spott’s most notable adjustment came in placing the supremely-skilled Jonathan Drouin on the top line, replacing Jonathan Huberdeau on the trio once dubbed the "lockout line" alongside Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Mark Scheifele.
Spott and his coaching staff didn’t need to wait long to cash in their chips on this latest gamble. After the well had seemingly run dry on Huberdeau as the setup man on this line, Drouin added a dynamic to the trio that made them even more dangerous than they had previously been in the tournament.
Drouin would score the insurance goal to put Canada ahead 3-1 in the second period on a nifty play started by Nugent-Hopkins. The Edmonton Oiler skated to the right circle, waited for Drouin streaking to the net and fired a harmless low shot that Russian goalie Andrei Makarov directed right to Drouin. The Halifax Mooseheads’ scoring sensation picked off the rebound and wrapped it around quickly to the far post.
He was named Canada’s player of the game for his efforts.
The power-play, which came under fire after failing to put the Americans away with some late two-man advantages on Sunday, staked the Canadians to the two goal lead. Valeri Nichushkin, who made a poor decision by dumping Tyler Wotherspoon head first in the end boards, opened the door for the Canadians with a five-minute major.
Dougie Hamilton rifled a point shot under the bar to give Canada a lead it would never relinquish. Scheifele would give them the two-goal lead on a nifty skate to stick play on the same man advantage and Canada was off and running.
There were times when the Russians appear poised to break through and square the game. The opening frame featured some cross-ice plays where they would try sneaking a forward behind the defence, but it never led to goals for the home side.
The only blemish from this game was one mistake made by Scheifele when he tried carrying the puck out of his own corner, only to be pick-pocketed and see Nikita Kucherov rip a wrist shot to the far side top corner.
The Russians pressured late in the first period, but the Canadians maintained their lead heading into the break.
Adjustments were clearly made after some tense moments in the first period and the defence came through. Passing lanes that were previously open to the Russians were shut down in the second and third periods, and the middle of the ice was taken away completely by the end.
Team Canada forced the Russians to the outside where the only open looks were ones the Russians were passing up in search for the creative, passing plays that are their trademark. Those plays weren’t there as the game grew longer, and it became clear that goaltender Malcolm Subban wouldn’t need to save the day like he had against the Americans.
Subban was forced to make just 21 saves, and his toughest came in the dying seconds when a lull in concentration following Huberdeau’s empty netter led to a penalty shot. A master of the penalty shot in junior, Subban kicked away the attempt by Vladimir Tkachyov and pumped his fist towards the bench in celebration.
Canada’s patient, disciplined game against Team U.S.A. carried over to this game. They were willing to play tough, but again picked their spots and turned up opportunities to make highlight reel hits that would have likely ended in penalties, if not suspensions. The only undisciplined penalty was handed down to Nathan MacKinnon, who appeared frustrated and finished a check by cross-checking his man in the face.
Boone Jenner, coming off a three-game suspension to play his first tournament game, earned the respect of his teammates with the cape for his tremendous play. He harnessed the ghost of Casey Cizikas in a second period penalty kill, pinning the puck against the offensive boards and draining the clock off the Russian man advantage.
Canada’s reward means they will bypass the quarterfinals and await the winner of the Americans and Czechs from their quarterfinal matchup.
There’s much to like from the way Team Canada is responding against tougher opponents. Bad habits that were prevalent have since crept out of their game. The players are adjusting to the opposition and eliminating mistakes that could cost them.
His players will get the credit, and Spott would surely trade the glory of a cape for a gold medal.