It was supposed to be a matchup of star talent, the Connor McDavid-Jack Eichel show. It turned out that depth was the difference.
Canada beat the U.S. 5-3 in the final game of the preliminary round of the 2015 world juniors Wednesday evening, but that’s a bit of a deceiving final score given that Canada notched two empty-net goals in a curious last couple of minutes.
Looking at it dispassionately, you might say that Eichel had a better game in defeat than McDavid did in victory.
Eichel wasn’t a commanding presence on every shift, but he was always a presence and had a shining moment or two. His best came when things looked darkest for an American team that traded chances with their rivals in the first but felt the game slipping away.
Canada went up 2-0 midway through the second period and play was trending the host team’s way — at least until Anthony Duclair took a tripping penalty.
On the next shift, Eichel controlled the puck with imperious calm on the left boards a couple of strides in from the blueline and waited for his teammates to assume their positions. Eichel had no clean shot on goal and wasn’t about to take a chance on a lucky carom through a thicket of sticks and bodies. Penalty killer Nick Paul came out to chase Eichel. Mistake.
Eichel didn’t blow by him — that suggests some sort of supreme physical effort. He got Paul leaning one way, went the other and made it look easy. Eichel then threw a pass to Sonny Milano who in turn fed Anthony DeAngelo crashing the goal from the point. Canadian goaltender Eric Comrie had no chance; the score now 2-1 and the face of the game changed — what looked like a rout in the making became more tense.
At least for the remainder of the second period and the first half of the third.
The Americans generated chances through that stretch but not as many as the home side. Coach Benoit Groulx had the last change and put Canada’s top line — Anthony Duclair, Sam Reinhart and player of the game Max Domi — up against the top U.S. unit of Tyler Motte, Alex Tuch and Eichel. The rationale: Eichel can make things happen on the forecheck, so best keep him busy with the deep threat, as both Duclair and Domi are north-south game-breakers.
McDavid has taken some heat from skeptics and Eichel’s boosters, suggesting that he has had a less-than-impressive tournament. He did figure in the crucial third goal, though it wasn’t a piece of art by any means. McDavid threw the puck in the direction of U.S. goaltender Thatcher Demko and Canadian captain Curtis Lazar crashed the net. Lazar deflected the puck across the goal line, though the Americans suggested he had caught the rubber and carried into the end zone. The goal stood up after a replay review — 3-1 Canada, a bit of a backbreaker.
Dylan Larkin brought the U.S. back within a goal with less than three minutes in regulation, a byproduct of a screw-up by otherwise reliable Canadian defencemen Joe Hicketts and Dylan Hetherington. Milano started a pretty neat three-way passing play. Nonetheless, you had to believe the U.S. had left it too late, which turned out to be true.
Empty-netters by Reinhart and Domi were the bread that formed the sandwich around another Larkin goal with 42 seconds to go. The score fairly reflected the balance of play, I suppose, what with Canada registering 43 shots on Demko and the Americans 28 on Comrie. Still, each team beat the other netminder three times, each team scoring two at even strength and the other on a power play.
These teams are reasonably close — you might give an edge to the Canadians if these teams should meet in the gold-medal game in Toronto, but an unforced error or two like that made by Hicketts and Hetherington could be enough to swing the final to a different outcome than Wednesday’s tilt in Montreal.
McDavid was outstripped by Eichel in part because he is asked to do less here than his American semi-foil. I say semi-foil because a real foil would be going head-to-head with him and if one saw the other is was a view from the bench. That’s sort of how these head-to-head things usually work out — better in theory and hype than in real action.
Eichel also outstripped McDavid because the Americans look to their brightest star as the catalyst for their first line and surround him with their best available talent. For his part, McDavid fills a role on the second line ahead of the Nick Paul-Nic Petan-Robby Fabbri third-line unit — or maybe it’s vice versa. Really, there’s not much to pick between them. Said one head scout: “Maybe Eichel looked good to other people, but I’ve seen him seven times this season and it was probably his worst game. He stayed too long on a power play. Really didn’t make things happen consistently. McDavid is coming together. You can’t be off as long as he has been and not lose your timing.”
More to the point, four games into the tournament the lines centred by Reinhart and Petan are locked in while Canadian coach Benoit Groulx is tinkering with McDavid’s wingers. Curtis Lazar has been the right-winger throughout the proceeding, but the coach moved erstwhile 13th forward Jake Virtanen onto the other side. McDavid had been skating with Nick Ritchie on the left wing in the first three games of the preliminary round but settled on a surprisingly effective crash-and-bang line with Lawson Crouse and centre Frederik Gauthier against the Americans. The biggest bodies up front in the Canadian lineup managed to cycle the puck for stretches while the sands fell the hourglass in the third period.
You’d give a slight advantage to Eichel over McDavid based on the proceedings through 60 minutes and through four games in Montreal. But this is the preliminary round — what happens last matters most. McDavid figures to be in better form with these games to sharpen his timing after weeks lost to a broken hand.