Canada faces big questions after Lafreniere’s injury in all-time defeat

Canada's Alexis Lafreniere reacts after being upended by Russia's Yegor Zamula(4) during first period action at the World Junior Hockey Championship. (Ryan Remiorz/CP)

Can we chalk this one up to jetlag?

Because Canada didn’t appear to get up for the 1 p.m. ET (7 p.m. local) start time in Ostrava, Czech Republic. And everything that could go wrong, did, in Canada’s 6-0 dismantling at the hands of Russia on Saturday.

In losing 18-year-old phenom and projected No.1 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, Alexis Lafreniere, to injury, Russia (1-0-0-1) exposed a glaring weakness in net and Canada’s offence disappeared just two days after an explosive 6-4 comeback win over the U.S. in its opening game.

It was a historically bad performance for Canada (1-0-0-1), which had only been defeated by five goals in the tournament three times and been shut out on four occasions, never falling by six or more, with its worst doughnut loss being 4-0 to Sweden in 1997.

Where does this leave Canada, which is looking to bounce back from a disappointing sixth-place finish at last year’s world juniors on home soil?

Here are some takeaways from the historically bad defeat:

Losing Lafreniere

This one really hurts.

It’d be hard enough to recover from one of the worst losses in the country’s history at the world juniors, but losing the native of Saint-Eustache, Que., for an extended period of time would be akin to twisting a knife right in the maple leaf.

The devasting blow came at 1:30 in the second period when Lafreniere — who has 70 points in 32 games for the QMJHL’s Rimouski Oceanic this season and showed off his elite skill with a four-point outing against the U.S. — drove hard to the net and fired a backhand off the pads of Russian goalie Amir Miftakhov. As Lafreniere’s momentum carried him forward, he appeared to get tangled up with Miftakhov as he led with his left leg, which twisted awkwardly after catching a rut in the ice, as he fell past the netminder.

Lafreniere didn’t put any weight on his leg as he was helped off the ice.

The injury appeared to take any semblance of wind from Canada’s sails, which had already struggled to muster offence against Russia. Canada was outshot 39-28 and was 0-for-3 on a power play, which was 3-for-5 against the U.S.

Canada will be hard-pressed to replace Lafreniere’s dynamic skill if his injury turns out to be serious.

Canada’s Nico Daws (1) is replaced by Joel Hofer during second period action against Russia at the World Junior Hockey Championships. (Ryan Remiorz/CP)

Goaltending questions

Canada entered the tournament with uncertainty in net, and after two games, Nico Daws has done little to quash those concerns.

The 18-year-old’s performance in Canada’s tournament-opening win over the U.S., during which he gave up four goals on 32 shots, was largely overshadowed by the team’s offensive explosion led by Lafreniere.

But on Saturday, a struggling Canadian squad needed Daws to step up. It didn’t happen. The starting netminder for the OHL’s Guelph Storm gave up another four markers on 17 shots, including several off big rebounds.

Russia opened the scoring at 1:44 in the first period on a brutal giveaway by defenceman Jared McIsaac (Detroit Red Wings), who sent a pass up the centre of the ice, but was intercepted and kept in the D-zone — or not, it was close — by Alexander Khovanov. The Minnesota Wild third-round pick then fired a shot blocker-side on Daws, who deflected it upward, but lost track of the puck and it fell behind the undrafted tender.

Eight minutes later, Russian centre Nikita Alexandrov (St. Louis Blues) gained the zone and sent a turnaround shot from the point on goal. Daws couldn’t control the rebound, which was corralled by forward Pavel Dorofeyev, (Vegas Golden Knights) who was in the perfect position in front and roofed a backhand into the net.

Russia made it 3-0 on another tough goal at 13:43, when Nikita Rtishev, who was cutting to the net, put away a backhand off a rebound that bounced straight out to the winger, following a point shot from D-man Danil Pylenkov.

Daws gave up fourth at 2:18 of the second, after a weak defensive effort from Canada allowed Alexandrov to cut along the boards, drive to the net and slide the puck into the cage.

That was it for Daws, who had been a good story after getting passed over in last summer’s NHL Draft, but is projected as a second-round pick in 2020 after leading the OHL in save percentage and goals-against average.

Joel Hofer (St. Louis Blues) didn’t fare much better, giving up two goals on 22 shots.

Will Canada give Hofer, a 2018 fourth-round pick, another shot? Will it go back to Daws? Or is it time to give Olivier Rodrigue (Edmonton Oilers) a chance?

Team Canada players watch the post-game ceremony after losing 6-0 against Russia. (Ryan Remiorz/CP)

Lone bright spot

The one silver lining was Canada’s play while short-handed.

The team held Russia off the board during four power plays, including down 5-on-3 for 49 seconds after defenceman Jacob Bernard-Docker (Ottawa Senators) took a holding the stick penalty at 15:39 of the first.

Joe Veleno (Detroit Red Wings), in particular, played a pivotal role in the kill, breaking up chances and laying out for a big shot block.

Canada was aggressive on the PK, sending a man out to disrupt the passing lanes and pressure attackers.

Its play while short-handed was a point of emphasis at practice after the U.S. went 3-for-5 on the power play.

Quick hits:

On the other side of the coin, it was big turnaround performance for Russia, last year’s bronze medallist, which was upset by the host Czech Republic 4-3 in its first game.

Khovanov, who had a goal and an assist on Saturday, continues to impress after a difficult draft year.

The 19-year-old was diagnosed with Hepatitis A, but recovered to finish the season with 28 points in 29 games for the QMJHL’s Moncton Wildcats.

However, the formerly highly touted prospect’s stock still fell and he was drafted in the third round.

Khovanov rebounded last season 74 points in 64 games, and has 53 points in 26 games for Moncton this year. He’s also off to a strong start with three points in two games for Russia. Keep an eye on him.

Last tournament’s leading scorer and first-round pick of the Florida Panthers, Grigori Denisenko, also had a bit of a breakout game for Russia, notching his first goal as well as an assist. He’s tied with Khovanov for the team-lead in points.

Up Next: Canada will get a chance to rebound on Monday against a German squad (1-0-0-1) that is coming off a win over the Czech Republic.

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