Goaltenders at WJC have the toughest job of all

Zach Fucale talked about the impact of the crowd at Canada's win over Slovakia.

Pity the goaltenders at the IIHF under-20s, at least if you’re a Canadian or U.S. fan and have half a heart.

Of course it has been that way for years. When things go sideways for one of these teams at this tournament, you’ll find a poor kid who would be quite happy to leave the arena still wearing his mask. Think of Marc-Andre Fleury in 2004, trying to process how a Canadian break-out pass took the unluckiest carom of all, late in the gold medal game versus the U.S.. Think of the meltdowns at either end of the final in Saskatoon a few years back that wound up with a score you’d find in a CFL game.

The pressure is always on goaltenders in major international events, where the absence of a best-of-five or best-of-seven format affords the netminders no margin for error, no we’ll-get-them-next-time. Canada’s Zach Fucale and the U.S.’s Thatcher Demko will be facing stuff that crushes the souls of grown men, never mind teenagers. It’s not just the nature of the job, but also recent history.

“The pressure that Fucale and Demko are under will be unbelievable,” said one scouting director. “For all the attention that McDavid and Eichel have been getting coming into the tournament, the thing is that both these teams had bad goaltending last year. They had a shot at making [the gold-medal game last year] if they were even decent in net. But they weren’t.”

On day one of the tournament, Demko was under crushing pressure and it looked like he might crack. He couldn’t have got off to a worse start. Barely a minute in, the Finns made a routine dump-in and Demko went behind the net, seemingly under no pressure, with the intent of sliding the puck over to defenceman Noah Hanifan. He misplayed it completely, whiffing on the pass and Mikko Rantanen, a pesky right winger, pounced. Rantanen threw the puck out in front of the net, a hope that a teammate was skating in his wake. No teammate was close enough, but an opponent was, Auston Matthews, and the puck was a one-bank fluke off the 2016-draft eligible. It was an inauspicious start for the Americans, a hard swallow for Demko and a rough introduction to the under-20s for Matthews, who is the early favourite to be the first-overall pick in 18 months time. It also evoked Fleury’s heartbreaker in 2004.

The goal gave the Finns a boost and Demko had a nervous moment a few shifts later when he almost whiffed on a lobbed shot from the blueline. But for a faint deflection off his right pad, it would have been 2-0 Finland and doubts about Demko could have creeped into many heads, Demko’s among them.

If you’re going to struggle, best to do it early. From that point on Demko tightened up his game and ended up making 28 saves in the U.S.’s 2-1 shootout win. The best of his stops might have come late in the second period to preserve a 1-1 tie when defenceman Aleksi Makela blasted from the slot Demko got his blocker up on pure reflex. Demko made another five-star save in the last minute, stoning Jesse Puljujarvi who poured in on the American goal unimpeded.

Demko stopped two of three in the shoot-out and that was all that was needed to give the U.S. a very hard-earned win.

“You don’t want to give up a weak goal in this tournament and that goal … could be considered weak,” Demko said.

How Zach Fucale will fare in the world juniors’ crucible is a matter for discussion in coming days. There’s no takeaway from the Canadians’ 8-0 whitewash of poor out-manned Slovakia. Through the first 30 minutes or so, Fucale faced three shots. By game’s end he turned aside 12 pucks though you’d struggle to remember any shots and so would he.

It might have been nice if Fucale was further tested so that Montreal fans could get a closer look at the Halifax Mooseheads netminder selected by the Canadiens in the second round of the 2013 entry draft. No, by reports of scouts who would know, Fucale’s season hasn’t been an aesthetic success. In fact, some speculated earlier this season that he might have played his way out of the No. 1 job.

History – selective history anyway – is on the side of going with bigger talent in goal even when he’s off his usual game. The classic case was another QMJHL goaltender, Roberto Luongo. Back in the run-up to the 1999 under-20s in Manitoba, Luongo was struggling with Val d’Or. Still, the Canadian under-20 staff (headed by current Hockey Canada boss Tom Renney) designated Luongo the No. 1. The logic that prevailed: He was the best goaltender, just not playing his best, so let him rise to the occasion. That Luongo was traded from Val ‘d’Or to Acadie-Bathurst in the middle of proceedings might have complicated matters. Instead it seemed to clear his mind. No Canadian goaltender has ever been better than Luongo was in that tournament and he pretty much singlehandedly got a team of very average skills to overtime in the gold-medal game.

How did Luongo get on that run in ’99? The catalyst was the opening game against – you guessed it – Slovakia. In a game played in Brandon, Luongo turned aside 36 shots, many of them white-knuckle stuff and 35 saves wouldn’t have been enough as the game finished in a 0-0 tie.

Fucale’s storyline might track like Luongo’s. After all he did get traded from Halifax to the Quebec Remparts after he checked into the Canadian pre-tournament camp.

Maybe Fucale could have used some sort of test rather than a dozen shots and not a red-letter scoring chance among them. That’s done and gone though. Hard to imagine Germany in Game No. 2 on Saturday posing any more of a threat than Slovaks did in the opener. You’d have to think after the shoot-out loss that the Finns will pose a real threat in Canada’s third game in Montreal. Fucale will be handling that first shoot-in with extreme care.

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