Canada-Russia WJC takeaways: Barzal Canada’s best by far

Team Canada captain Dylan Strome comments on his performance in Canada’s win over Russia and whether the rivalry is still as heated as before.

TORONTO — Canada and Russia have provided some of the most wild, unpredictable, cardiac arrest-inducing world juniors games in recent memory. The 6-5 barn burner in 2009, when Jordan Eberle tied the game with five seconds left; the Canadian collapse in 2011, when Russia scored five times in the third period to win gold; the semifinal game in 2012, when Canada scored four times in five minutes to fall short in nearly overcoming a 6-1 deficit; the failed Russian comeback in the gold medal game two years ago, when Canada won, 5-4.

Monday night’s game, the first of this year’s tournament for both teams, wasn’t like that all. Not even close. Canada was in control from wire to wire, out-shooting the Russians 37-17, dominating possession, and winning much more handily than the 5-3 scoreline suggests. But there was still plenty to take away from the game. Here’s what we saw.

The PP and PK

Special teams can be a remarkable difference maker at a tournament like this, especially during confrontations between top teams. That’s why Canadian head coach Dominique Ducharme spent an exceptional amount of time drilling his team on its 1-3-1 power play system in the lead up to Monday night’s opener. And he had to like what he saw against Russia, as Canada scored three times on six power play opportunities.

The 1-3-1 formation utilizes four forwards and a lone defenceman, with one player stationed in front of the net, three players lined horizontally across the heart of the zone, and the final player manning the point. Canada will primarily use Thomas Chabot in that point role, as he has experience playing within a similar system with the Saint John Sea Dogs. His job is to direct pucks at the net or distribute passes to the two players on the edges of the horizontal line of three, who can in turn take their own shots or look to find passing seams to set each other up for one-timers.

You can look no further than Canada’s second goal of the night—a bullet off the stick of Dylan Strome—to see how effective the system can be. The sequence started with Chabot stick handling at the height of the zone before feeding Mathew Barzal at the top of the left faceoff circle. Barzal quickly directed a cross-ice pass to Strome, who had snuck into position for a one-timer he couldn’t miss.

Surely opponents will start studying video of the 1-3-1 tactic and devising ways to neutralize it. But the early returns are undeniably promising.

Meanwhile, Canada killed off two of the three penalties they took, and were generally able to limit high percentage scoring chances when they were a man down, which has be encouraging for Ducharme. Last year, Canada’s penalty kill was dead last in the tournament, allowing seven power play goals in five games. Excelling on special teams will no doubt be key to Canada’s success this time around. And they got off to a good start on Monday.

Barzal at his best

All of Canada’s lines played pretty well on Monday, but the trio of Barzal between Mathieu Joseph and Taylor Raddysh was especially effective, providing energy throughout the night and generating several scoring chances. Barzal’s line was especially aggressive in the Russian zone, ferociously hunting the puck and controlling possession once they had it.

The trio played more collective minutes than any of Canada’s other three lines, which is notable on a team built to have offensive depth up and down its roster. Ducharme essentially rolled his lines in Canada’s three tune-up games, giving near equal time to four units that are all expected to produce offensively. But Monday night was the first time we saw him be a bit more selective with his ice time, which is an indication of just how well Barzal’s unit was playing.

Barzal— a New York Islanders draftee—was Canada’s best player by far, finishing the night with five shots, three points, and 18:30 of ice time, tops among forwards. His third period power play goal was practically acrobatic. He took a quick feed in front of the net from Pierre-Luc Dubois, fell to his left as he stumbled over a Russian defender’s skates, but still managed to chip the puck to his right, up and over the Russian goaltender.

Working ahead

Like all hockey coaches, Ducharme wants his team to spend the majority of its time outside of its own zone. And that’s exactly what happened Monday night, as Canada aggressively pressured the Russians through the neutral zone, closing gaps and batting pucks off sticks, which tilted the possession battle heavily in Canada’s favour and kept Russia on its heels.

One of the best things Canada did on the night was fore check. Russia was under constant pressure as Canada sent waves of attackers into the offensive zone looking to disrupt the Russian attack before it could even get started. This led to turnovers, which led to offensive zone pressure, which led to scoring opportunities. The only thing keeping Russia alive in the first half of the game was the strong play of goaltender Ilya Samsonov. But eventually something had to give.

That’s what happened on the third Canadian goal as Dubois and Nicolas Roy flew at the Russian defence, pressuring them into a turnover. Roy ended up with the puck on his stick just above the hash marks and fought off several scrambling opponents before throwing a shot on net that appeared to surprise Samsonov as it flew past his outstretched pad to give Canada a 3-1 lead.

Good timing

If there was ever a time to face Russia—a world juniors powerhouse and the only country to medal in each of the last six tournaments—Boxing Day was it. A consistent flaw of recent Russian teams has been sluggish starts. Last year, they needed a shootout to beat the Czech Republic in their first game. The year before that, they nearly fell to Denmark—not exactly a hockey powerhouse—before coming away with a shootout victory. In 2013, they opened against Slovakia and needed overtime to pull out a win. In 2011, before the Russians eventually won gold, they were clobbered by Canada on opening night, 6-3.

For whatever reason, it generally takes Russia a game or two to find their feet. And the trend continued Monday night, as Russia failed to sustain any kind of pressure in the offensive zone and continuously turned the puck over.

Of course, you can be sure this won’t be the last you hear from them. Russia is a better team than they showed, and you can expect them to only improve as the tournament wears on. They flashed exceptional speed at times and demonstrated that they don’t need much time or space to generate scoring opportunities. Don’t write them off.

Something to watch

Starting goaltender Carter Hart had a struggle against Switzerland in Canada’s final tune-up game on Friday, allowing three goals on the first eight shots he faced including a truly weak one that trickled right through his pads. Of course, Hart was the first goalie off the board at this year’s NHL entry draft and put up a .928 save percentage through 24 games for the WHL’s Everett Silvertips this season, so the smart money was on a bounce back performance from the Albertan.

But that’s not exactly what happened. Hart allowed the second shot he faced to get past him, a long wrister off the stick of Mikhail Sergachyov that buzzed past two Canadian defenders and under Hart’s blocker. As Sergachyov celebrated, Hart stretched his arms out and shrugged his shoulders as if to suggest he never saw the puck.

But that wasn’t the case on the next two goals, which both came from long distances and provided Hart with a clean look. On the second goal, Kirill Kaprizov fired from above the hash marks and beat Hart glove side. On the third, Yegor Rykov simply threw the puck on net and watched it fly under Hart’s right arm.

So, it’s been a less than ideal 120 minutes of hockey for Hart. Of course, it’s important to note that the Swiss game presented some unique challenges, as Hart didn’t face a shot until halfway through the first period and spent long stretches of the game standing in his crease watching his teammates work at the opposite end. Monday night’s game provided him some more activity, but not a considerable amount, as Russia mustered just five shots in the first period and four in the second.

Maybe Hart is the type of goalie who needs early and consistent action to get a feel for a game and find his groove. Or maybe he’s just hit a slump at a rather inopportune time. We’ll see. What we do know is the tournament’s short, and if Hart continues to allow soft goals, the pressure will only increase on Ducharme to make a move. For what it’s worth, when asked after the game if Hart would get the start on Tuesday vs. Slovakia, Ducharme simply said: “We’ll talk about that. We’ll see tomorrow.”

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.