Canada must improve finishing to boost medal hopes

Canada forward Gilbert Brule (7), Canada defenceman Maxim Noreau (56) and Canada forward Rene Bourque (17) celebrate a goal during third period men's hockey action against South Korea, at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, on Sunday, February 18, 2018. (Nathan Denette/CP)

GANGNEUNG, South Korea – Conservatively, it could have been 6-0 after the first period and the fact that it wasn’t, that South Korea managed to lose only 4-0 in the preliminary round finale at the Pyeongchang Olympics, highlights an area of concern for Canada as it advances to the quarter-finals.

Creating good chances and scoring goals can be difficult in this tournament, and from here on out for the two-time defending champions a bad day, a hot goalie, a poorly timed mistake is enough to instantly end the pursuit of gold.

As Sunday’s narrow margin of victory, at least relative to the play, showed, the puck can’t simply be willed into the net. For a team banking on scoring by committee, that’s something to keep in mind in the leadup to Wednesday, when they face the winner of Tuesday’s qualification game between Finland and South Korea for a spot in the semifinals.

“We’ve played really well,” said Wojtek Wolski, who assisted on Christian Thomas’s first-period goal that opened the scoring. “We seem to be building, the power play is doing a good job, the penalty kill is doing a good job, we’ve just got to find a way to make sure we’re focused in those really tight games because it’s going to come down to one goal, one power play, one penalty kill, one shootout, maybe.”

The Canadians have already been through one of those at the Gangneung Hockey Centre, during a 3-2 loss to the Czech Republic on Saturday that left them scrambling to claim one of the top four spots and a direct path to the quarters, and it didn’t end well.

Much like they did against the South Koreans, they left many scoring chances unfinished in that one. Sunday it went to another level, as Canada launched 11 shots in the game’s first five minutes, 18 total in the first period and 49 overall at Matt Dalton, a naturalized Korean citizen born in Clifton, Ont., who after 20 minutes sought out salt tablets because his legs were cramping.

Credit to him for standing on his head and making like Carey Price suddenly bailed on the NHL and settled in Seoul, but if the Koreans can make it that hard to score, what happens when they start facing the better teams with more at stake?

“You’ve got to trust your process and I’m a believer in the law of averages you can say and if you continue to do the right things, things should go your way,” said Canadian forward Mason Raymond. “I think we did and we got rewarded with some. Maybe not as many as we were hoping, but we got rewarded.”

Eric O’Dell, Maxim LaPierre and Gilbert Brule also scored, pushing the game to 2-0 after 40 minutes and then padding things out in the third period, when they needed the extra goals in the event a tiebreaker was required to determine the final automatic quarter-final berth.

The Czech Republic secured top spot in Group A earlier in the day with a 4-1 win over Switzerland, advancing directly to the quarter-finals along with Group B winner Russia and Group C winner Sweden, which beat Finland 3-1 winner Sunday night.

Had that game ended in overtime, Canada would have found itself in a tie with the losing team at seven points, and they needed to win by at least four to have a sufficient goal-differential to advance.

“We didn’t talk about it until the third period, going into the third Willie [Desjardins] mentioned that we may need four goals,” said Wolski. “He made sure we focused on playing the right way and trying to get there, he said don’t cheat because we need four goals, we want to make sure we’re still playing the right way so we don’t have any bad habits going into these next games.”

There was certainly the potential for that as Dalton kept making save after save after save during an experience he repeatedly described as special.

“That’s the team my whole life I’ve cheered for,” said Dalton, whose family is here to share the experience with him. “I would have liked the outcome to be a little bit different but felt fairly good about my effort and the team’s effort. If you had asked me five years ago if I’d be playing in the Olympics against Team Canada, I’d say you’re crazy. Just trying to enjoy it.”

Up until O’Dell scored at 14:22 of the second to kill the upset hopes of a boisterous crowd at Gangneung Hockey Centre that cheered every Korean touch of the puck like it was a goal (“I think they were just excited when we got it out of the zone,” quipped Dalton), the game was a bounce away from getting a whole lot more tense.

South Korea nearly caught a break in the second period when a dump-in took a strange bounce off the boards right to the slot, where Derek Roy needed to swipe it away from Shin Sanghoon to prevent an easy tap in.

Backup Kevin Poulin, starting in place of Ben Scrivens in a planned move, had to make a couple of strong saves, one during a Raymond double minor for high-sticking on Kim Sangwook in the slot, and another on a cross-ice feed to Ahn Jin Hui.

The Canadians were sluggish for a good portion of the second, going more than six minutes without a shot to open the stanza, but then O’Dell picked up the rebound of a Marc-Andre Gragnani shot off the boards and tucked it into an empty net.

“Weird bounce off the wall there,” said Dalton. “I thought it was coming out the other side. At the end of the day I’m just trying to give our guys a chance, try to keep us in the game, but as the time keeps going you’re thinking about [the upset], that’s for sure.”

Lapierre’s goal through Dalton’s legs after a coast-to-coast rush made it 3-0 at 3:47 of the third and was another dagger before Brule iced things at 18:02.

“We had lots of shots early, lots of chances early and they wouldn’t go so you knew it was going to settle into one of those games,” said Desjardins. “Our guys stayed with it, we didn’t give them an awful lot, except on the power play, they had a couple of little rallies in the third but overall we played a pretty good game defensively.”

Still, the Koreans kept it respectable, especially after an 8-0 loss to Switzerland that prompted forward Michael Swift, another of their seven naturalized foreigners, to say, “it was embarrassing. Nobody wanted to play, it looked like.”

The nascent hockey program run by former NHL defenceman Jim Paek looked like that at points in the first, when their plan seemed to be let Dalton stop everything and ice the puck when possible, but played with more life over the final 40 minutes.

“We knew it was just about time,” said Thomas. “We had pressure on them pretty much the whole game, that first period was pretty dominant, we knew we just had to keep it going, get the pucks on net and one would find the back.”

The Canadians were merciless in the first period, outshooting the Olympic hosts 18-5, but only managed to beat Dalton once when Thomas took a clever stretch pass from Chay Genoway, got to the top of the slot and ripped a laser beam into the top corner at 7:36.

The goal came on Canada’s 14th shot.

Canada was without Andrew Ebbett, who suffered what he called a charley horse late in the 3-2 shootout loss to the Czech Republic, but he finished that game and said afterwards he was fine. Quinton Howden, scratched Saturday, took his spot in the lineup and Desjardins described Ebbett as “banged up” and added that “he should be back.”

Desjardins also conceded that, “we’ve got our toughest hockey coming up and we know that.” Given it was hard to score with a plethora of chances against South Korea, he may be underselling it.

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