Canada-Slovakia WJC takeaways: A worthy test despite lopsided score

Canada defenceman Kale Clague (Nathan Denette/CP)

TORONTO — With around 13 minutes remaining in Tuesday’s mismatch of a preliminary game between Canada and Slovakia, Canadian star Mathew Barzal collected the puck in his own end and took off. He skated through the neutral zone with Slovakian forward Radovan Bondra drafting in his wake, scanning the ice for teammates to set up. Meanwhile, in the Slovakian end, Martin Bodak bent his knees and lined Barzal up, flying in for what he figured would be a crushing hip check.

Alas, Barzal caught Bodak out of the corner of his eye and diverted his path, side stepping the hit and letting Bodak fly full speed into Bondra, who he upended directly into Bondra’s linemate, Filip Lestan. The three Slovakian bodies hit the deck, sprawling awkwardly as they slid across the ice in their defensive zone. And if you’ve ever seen that happen at a level as high as this before, you’ve watched an awful lot of hockey.

It was that kind of game. Slovakia spent the majority of their night chasing, reeling and gasping. By the third period, Canadian fans had begun cheering Slovakian shots on goal as they crept towards a half dozen. Poor Slovakian netminder Adam Huska, who was his team’s best player on the night, deserves a sabbatical — or at least a long nap — after enduring the hail of rubber thrown in his direction throughout a game that was played almost entirely in his end. As Huska put it bluntly after the game: “It’s really, really hard to stop every puck.”

This was a dominant performance by Canada, one Slovakia was able to keep up with for the first 20 minutes before inevitably coming apart at the seams over the final 40. The 5-0 score line tells you just how thorough the Canadian victory was, but here’s some other things we saw.

A worthwhile opponent
Slovakia has never beaten Canada in this tournament, and although they won bronze in 2015, they’re firmly believed to be one of the bottom-two teams in this year’s Pool B. However, they still deserve credit for bringing energy in the first period and putting together a strong first 20 minutes, which got the game into the first intermission without a goal.

Although their systems completely collapsed in the third, Slovakia is a team that plays with strong cohesion and chemistry, a product of the fact 11 of their players play together year-round for HK Orange 20 in the Slovak Extraliga. These players know each other’s tendencies well, which means Slovakia won’t have to endure an early-tournament learning phase like other teams might.

Make no mistake: Canada didn’t let Slovakia breathe on Tuesday – and it doesn’t get much worse than hip checking one teammate into another – but throughout the first period and for stretches of the next two, the Slovakians were organized and lively, checking hard, blocking shots fearlessly, and clogging up passing lanes, which are the kind of things you have to do against a quick, puck-moving team like Canada.

Credit must also be given to Huska, the New York Rangers prospect who was spectacular in the first period but simply couldn’t maintain that level of play when the defence in front of him grew exhausted. For as well as Huska played early, Canada was dominant in terms of shots, possession, and the sheer eye test. Something had to give.

And it did five minutes into the second period when Tyson Jost charged into the Slovakian end, drew a defender, and fed a trailing Jeremy Lauzon, who wired a shot past Huska’s right shoulder for the first tally of the night. A second came later in the frame off the stick of Taylor Raddysh — who wasn’t even invited to Canada’s summer development camp — after Canada pressured Slovakia relentlessly on a power play until an opportunity presented itself.

Shortly after that, a third goal, as Anthony Cirelli won a draw back to Lauzon, who threw a puck at the net and watched as Cirelli deflected it in. And then a fourth, and a fifth, and a final period that was played as a mere formality because hockey games in this tournament must last 60 minutes.

Turns out chasing a dominant, puck-possession team all night is tiring as hell, and you could see it in the Slovakian legs late in the game. But still, this is a team capable of coming away from the world juniors with at least a victory over Latvia. And, who knows, maybe they can push for an upset against Russia or the United States as well.

A change in goal
Presumptive back-up goaltender Connor Ingram got the start Tuesday after a pair of iffy games by Carter Hart, who allowed a combined six goals on 32 shots in Canada’s final tune-up with Switzerland and first preliminary contest against Russia.

Now, that could signal a couple things. It could just be that Ingram drew the soft end of an early tournament back-to-back as Canadian head coach Dominique Ducharme looks to keep Hart rested and Ingram involved. Or it could be a sign that Ducharme is seeing what he has in Ingram, and considering running with the Kamloops Blazers starter going forward.

It seems that the former is much more likely than the latter, but if Ducharme had planned to start Ingram in this game no matter what, he could have indicated that much earlier than he did. When he was asked after Monday night’s victory over the Russians if Hart would be in net the next night, Ducharme was evasive, saying: “We’ll talk about that. We’ll see tomorrow.” The next morning he announced Ingram would start.

Of course, Tuesday night’s game didn’t exactly shed much light on whether Ingram is playing better hockey at the moment than Hart. He saw just six shots and spent the majority of the game bent over at the waist, watching his teammates dominate possession at the opposite end. But he did make a terrific save in the first period, getting his left shoulder on a wicked wrist shot off the stick of Marek Sloboda at the end of a Slovakian power play. Alas, that was the only true test he received.

This situation will be interesting to watch. Hart’s issues appear to be very correctable, as he’s been beat several times on unscreened shots due to being set up too deep in his crease. Canada would rather he be more aggressive, coming up high to challenge shooters and take away their angles. If Ducharme wants Hart to be his goalie, he could give him a soft game against Latvia Thursday night to prove he’s worked through those difficulties.

Regardless, who starts that game will be telling. If it’s Hart, that’s a sign Canada wants him to figure things out and carry them into the medal round. If it’s Ingram, that’s an indication Ducharme will roll with the hot hand. As Ducharme said Monday night, we’ll see.

A dose of physicality
While Monday night’s affair between Canada and Russia was expected to be a feisty clash of teams that don’t particularly enjoy each other, Tuesday’s game actually featured more hard hits as Slovakia and Canada took turns teeing off on one another.

Barzal — who has been Canada’s best player through its first six periods — found himself on the wrong end of one of those hits in the early going after getting lined up by Adam Ruzicka in the neutral zone. Barzal spent the next several minutes at the end of the Canadian bench receiving treatment from a trainer, but eventually returned to the game.

Then it was Canada’s turn as defenceman Noah Juulsen leveled Oliver Pataky right in front of the Slovakian bench, earning a two-minute penalty in the process. On the ensuing power play, the towering Slovakian forward Bondra exacted revenge, decking Canadian penalty-killer Kale Clague in the corner.

All in all, this was the most physical test Canada has faced to this point, which can only be a good experience as it advances through the tournament. While Latvia likely won’t provide too much scrappiness Thursday night, Canada then plays the United States, a team that will surely be looking to line Canadians up in what is always an emotional battle.

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