ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – Whether indoors or out, optimal weather or far from it, there’s something troubling about Canada owning a two-goal lead against the United States at the world junior championship.
After blowing a pair of those advantages in last year’s gold-medal game, which resulted in a shootout loss, the Canadians allowed the same thing to happen under blustery conditions on Friday afternoon.
The Americans prevailed 4-3 in a shootout this time, with even their first goal in the breakaway competition by Kieffer Bellows a carbon copy of the one Troy Terry netted in Montreal in January. Canada has now lost four straight to their southern rivals.
“We were up by two both times,” returning centre Michael McLeod said. “We can’t take our foot off the gas against these guys. They always come back. That’s what we learned today.”
The Canadians carried 2-0 and 3-1 leads after each intermission as play slowed to a crawl while snowflakes the size of dimes pummelled the makeshift hockey rink at the home of the NFL’s Buffalo Bills.
In a game dominated by special teams, the Americans scored their second power-play goal on a pretty passing play finished off by defenceman Scott Perunovich 6:09 into the third period.
Just 44 seconds after pulling within one, 2018 NHL Draft prospect Brady Tkachuk eluded Canadian defenceman Dante Fabbro in front and capitalized after receiving a pass from Casey Mittelstadt. It was the Buffalo Sabres prospect’s third helper of the contest.
Canadian coach Dominique Ducharme felt his team got away from playing simple hockey in the snow as the game wore on. Simply put, the elements weren’t the cause of the loss.
“I don’t think the conditions did that. We did that to ourselves,” Canadian winger Maxime Comtois said. “We did a lot of things bad in the third.”
The Perunovich goal was scored with Comtois in the penalty box after he crumpled American defenceman Ryan Lindgren into the boards from behind on the forecheck. The goal – sparked by the penalty – wound up changing the complexion of the game.
“We had to control the game,” Ducharme said. “We let them back into the game with bad penalties.”
“I don’t think it was a boarding call,” Comtois said. “We raced for a puck and I think he thought it was icing. I don’t think I hit him that hard. He smiled when he got up.”
In the end, the outcome was reminiscent to what happened almost a year ago in Montreal. Then, Canada skated to a 4-2 lead early in the third period, only to see it wiped out within three minutes.
The 2017 final saw Bellows start the American comeback. It was Bellows who got the Americans on the board 6:27 in the second period on Friday. He beat goaltender Carter Hart far side on a clear-cut chance after Canadians Brett Howden and Alex Formenton gifted the Americans a full two-man advantage.
Up until then, the game had been controlled by Canada.
“Hard to compare with the outdoor conditions, but a lot of similarities [to last year],” Bellows said.
Canada scored twice on its two first-period power-play chances, the goals coming off the sticks of defenceman Cale Makar and captain Dillon Dube.
After Bellows got the Americans on the board in the second, Boris Katchouk responded for Canada with 2:21 left in the second. Katchouk missed a breakaway chance, but wound up tipping home a shot from defenceman Jake Bean seconds later. The goal required a lengthy review before it was upheld.
The length of the review paled in comparison to the time spent on the ice by maintenance workers to clear snow during extended TV timeouts. Snow squalls really started to pick up during the first intermission. By the second period, up to 15 people had to come onto the ice to cart away eight garbage cans and four wheelbarrows of snow.
The delays only increased in quality and length as the game wore on, making for less than ideal conditions for such an important hockey game.
For those reasons, American coach Bob Motzko said he wasn’t confident his team would be able to make enough skilled plays to come back. However, he and his coaching staff felt if they managed to get a goal, they’d get two and tie it up.
Much to the Canadians’ chagrin, that’s exactly what happened. They ended up being outshot 35-22 in front of the announced crowd of 44,592 – the largest ever at a world junior game, even though rows of seats in the upper bowl were empty.
“With the rivalry and with the crowd and whatnot, it definitely hurts a little more,” said defenceman Kale Clague, another returnee.
The good news for Canada is it just has to beat Denmark in regulation in its preliminary-round finale to secure top spot in Group A. That was the silver lining on this non-silver-medal outcome for Canada.
“I mean, if you look at the result, if we had to lose, it’s better to lose in overtime or shootout, right? Because with a win tomorrow we finish first,” Ducharme said. “That’s a good position to come into the playoffs. And it’s a good way to learn. It doesn’t cost too much.”
But if Friday’s game is any indication, there’s plenty to fine-tune before the medal round begins.
Injured Canadians improving
Concerns about the wounded members of Canada’s defence appear to be lessening.
Clague returned after missing Wednesday’s 6-0 victory over Slovakia to play a game-high 26:49. Clague had been sidelined after blocking a shot with his foot in the tournament opener against Finland.
“My ankle, I’ve been icing it, and doing therapy on it the last few days,” he said. “So, it’s good.”
Fabbro, meanwhile, didn’t play in the third period of Canada’s previous contest, but skated 14:54 – fourth most among Canadian defencemen.
“I was feeling good going into the game,” he said. “I warmed up great. Had a great on-ice warm up and felt great for that game.”