BUFFALO, N.Y. — Team Canada head coach Dominque Ducharme isn’t saying he expected his team to be nervous as they opened the 2018 world junior championship Tuesday night. But he isn’t saying he was surprised by his team’s jittery opener, either.
“You look at it, anytime it’s the first game of a playoff run, or the first game of a tournament, it’s quite often the one where the focus is harder to get,” Ducharme said after his team prevailed 4-2 over Finland. “Guys are excited all day. That’s draining physically and also mentally. I thought our focus was not as good as it was the last two exhibition games we played. But that’s part of getting into a tournament. And now we have something to build on.”
It wasn’t Canada’s best game, as Ducharme’s group had to overcome a series of bad turnovers and penalties, especially in the first two periods. But Canada steadily improved as the game carried on. The third period, when Canada outshot Finland 15-8 and kept the puck buried in the opposition end, was much more indicative of what Ducharme and his players feel they’re capable of.
“It was a little nerve-racking the first couple shifts. But once I got my feet under me I think it was a good game,” said Cal Foote, who made one of the night’s timeliest plays when he swatted a puck off Canada’s goal line in the third period. “I think that we have quite a bit more to give. So, I’m excited to see that.”
Here are some takeaways from Canada’s tournament-opening win.
Spreading out the offence
For the first time since 1979, Canada’s forward group doesn’t boast a single top-10 NHL draft pick. In fact, only four of Canada’s 13 forwards were even first-rounders, which led some to question whether the group would have difficulty generating offence in this tournament without a bonafide star in tow.
But those questions didn’t last long, as Canada converted on three of its first five shots against Finland, taking advantage of a very noticeable speed difference to create several opportunities with quick-strike attacks.
Boris Katchouk turned a loose puck in the neutral zone during a penalty kill into a breakaway the other way for the first tally. Sam Steel potted a juicy rebound on a power play for the second. And Drake Batherson finished a pretty passing play on an odd-man rush that began in a heartbeat for a third.
Canada’s fourth goal, which came midway through the second period, followed a similar refrain. Canada jumped all over a fumbled puck at its blue line and sprinted in the other direction before Taylor Raddysh buried a knuckling puck from above the faceoff circle. (Canada’s second line, which features Rob Thomas between Katchouk and Raddysh, was easily the team’s best on the night.)
Even though they were outshot through 40 minutes, Canada looked like the much more dangerous team, quickly transitioning up the ice from their own zone. Team speed is perhaps Canada’s best weapon in this tournament, and it was definitely on display Tuesday night. And Ducharme thinks there’s more to come.
“For sure that’s something that we have, speed. But even tonight, I think we could be using our speed even more,” Ducharme said. “And quite often our speed got caught up with bad puck management so we couldn’t use it as much. So, I think that’s one area where we’re going to get much better.”
Fabbro factors in
The decision came right down to the wire, but when Canada officially submitted its tournament roster on Boxing Day, Dante Fabbro’s name was on it.
The 19-year-old suffered a lower-body injury blocking a shot earlier this month for Boston University and got hurt again when he blocked a shot in an exhibition game against Denmark on Dec. 15. There was some doubt as to whether Fabbro would be ready for the start of the tournament, which is why Canada kept Regina’s Josh Mahura around through Christmas as an insurance policy.
But after skating on Dec. 23, taking Dec. 24 off, and then going through an intense on-ice session Dec. 25, Fabbro felt he was ready to play. And after putting him through a series of tests Tuesday morning, Canada’s training staff agreed.
“I think it was a lot of precautions on the part of the medical staff just to make sure and double checking exactly what it was. Hats off to them. They did an awesome job. I’m feeling great now,” Fabbro said. “The coaching staff did a great job pushing me in practice and making sure I was as fit as possible for this. I was doing a bunch of conditioning stints and it was great work. It was obviously tough. But it definitely paid off to help get me back on the ice.”
Some speculated Fabbro would be eased back into action Tuesday, but Ducharme played him as if it was any other game. Fabbro ended up seeing more than 18 minutes of ice time with a rotating cast of Canadian defencemen.
Canada’s defence is expected to be a strength in this tournament, and Tuesday night was a good start. Kale Clague led the way on Canada’s blue line, playing a team-high 23:27. Victor Mete was named Canada’s player of the game and was on the ice for three of his team’s goals. And Jake Bean put in several strong shifts to help Canada kill off penalties.
“I think we started off a little slow. Just not moving pucks quick enough, turning over pucks,” Fabbro said of Canada’s defensive play. “But I think as the game went on we definitely got our confidence. I don’t know if it was jitters or what. But as the game went on it definitely improved.”
Where to improve
Two areas Canada will need to address between now and Wednesday night’s clash with Slovakia are puckhandling and discipline.
Canada coughed up several careless turnovers in its own end, especially in the first two periods. And considering the team’s goal is to take three penalties or less per game, the six that Canada took had to leave a bad taste in Ducharme’s mouth.
“It was because we didn’t use our legs and our speed. We were reaching with our sticks,” Ducharme said. “Those are things we know and things guys did a good job of in the two exhibition games.”
Hart steady in net
Canadian goaltender Carter Hart played well, as he’ll have to if his team is going to go anywhere in this tournament. Finland outshot Canada through the first two periods, but the Everett goaltender keep the puck out of the net, which allowed Canada to never surrender its lead.
“I felt pretty good,” Hart said. “It was nice to get a couple goals early. We just built off that confidence throughout the game. Any time we get the first goal, that’s obviously huge for us.”
Ducharme hasn’t announced his starting goaltender for the game against Slovakia on Wednesday night. (Back-up Colton Point is expected to get the nod.) But it’ll be a surprise if Hart isn’t in net for every important game Canada plays in the tournament. He’s been stellar in the WHL this season, posting a .961 save percentage with five shutouts in 17 games.
Hart’s only awkward moment Tuesday actually came between periods, when he had a brief standoff with Finland’s backup goalie, Lassi Lehtinen, over who would leave the ice last. Hart’s superstitious — he says he won’t shave all tournament long — and wasn’t about to let anyone stay on the ice longer than him.
“I’ve been doing that since minor hockey,” Hart said. “I didn’t really care too much as long as I was last off. I wouldn’t have waited the whole period, but I probably would’ve waited a couple more minutes.”