Canada grinds out a win over Slovakia in first test at world juniors

Canada's Dylan Holloway (10), Ryan Suzuki (16), Jordan Spence (8) and Thomas Harley (5) celebrate a goal against Slovakia during first period IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship action in Edmonton on Sunday, December 27, 2020. (Jason Franson/CP)

EDMONTON — It was of those games you’ll never remember — unless Canada loses it. Then, it would never be forgotten.

It was dull, it was workmanlike, it was frustrating and at times sloppy. But it turned into a win for Team Canada, which ground out a 3-1 victory over Slovakia on Sunday in Edmonton.

“Concentrate on your work ethic, your courage, and … as a team we can just do good things,” Slovak head coach Robert Petrovicky told his players. “Our boys are happy to be here, and we want to do something special as a team.”

They very nearly did.

After a 16-2 win over Germany the night before, this was a brown out for Canada, which scored 4:06 into the game and again 3:25 before the final buzzer, while adding an empty netter. In between it was a power outage, as the country that gave hockey the brothers Stastny, Zdeno Chara and Miroslav Satan gave Canada a (cough) devil of a time in their second game at the 2021 World Juniors.

Dylan Holloway took the skate but did not play due to injury, joining injured captain Kirby Dach, while defenceman Braden Schneider was serving a one-game suspension for a head shot delivered against Germany. That’s OK though, because it was his replacement, Jordan Spence, who scored the game-opening Canadian goal that stood up for most of the night.

On Saturday, Canada had 10 different goal scorers and points from 17 of 20 players. On Sunday, Canada had just 23 shots on goal.

Here are our takeaways, as Canada moves to 2-0 at the tournament.

The Whitehorse Workhorse

Dylan Cozens is emerging as the leader of a team that lost captain Kirby Dach before the tournament even began. The Buffalo Sabres draftee followed a six-point night versus Germany with a key assist Sunday and an all-around performance that just oozed leadership.

“Cozy was really solid for us today,” Canadian coach Andre Tourigny said. “It wasn’t easy … and at some point we had a little bit of emotion on the bench. Dylan stayed calm and cool, and his presence was really good. He stayed patient and that translated to his teammates.”

Remember, Tourigny’s team has barely played together — just one pre-tournament game and two more after that. There is much to learn, and little time to do it inside the short window of this tournament.

“We grew as a group tonight,” Tourigny said. “We learned to go through adversity, and to keep our composure. It went away a little bit, in the second period we were forcing it, but by the end of the period we were patient with the outcome. Not panicking or trying to force it.

“As a team we learned,” he continued. “You learn about your players when the pressure is on. Who changes their game? Who just stays composed? Dylan Cozens really stayed with it. He’s been in that tough situation before, and it showed.”

Hey Nineteen

It was Devon Levi’s birthday, but Jordan Spence got the present.

After being a healthy scratch in Game 1, Spence scored on his first shift of the game, a goal that held up most of the night for Canada.

“A loose puck in front of the net and it came right to me. Pretty cool,” said Spence, lucky to draw in due to Schneider’s suspension. “It’s been amazing. It was unfortunate for Schneider to get suspended, and I got the call I was going to be in the lineup. Obviously a lot of emotions going on, being scratched, coming back the next day and then scoring. It’s amazing.”

At the other end, Levi was spending his 19th birthday trying to stay awake. The Slovaks had just four shots in each of the first two periods.

“I woke up, ate breakfast and focused on the game. Didn’t go on the phone much … I’ll answer my birthday wishes later. Just being here is enough,” Levi said. “It’s definitely not easy to get eight shots in the first two periods, then come into quite a few shots (nine in the third). Being a 1-0 game definitely kept me in it. I stayed focused, and just concentrated on the next shot.”

There is a lot of talk around Team Canada about the process. Don’t worry about the score, the kind of game being played, or whether you’re getting the bounces. Just play the way you’re supposed to play.

“Just stay humble,” Spence said, “and don’t let the distractions get in our way.”

•••

When Canada beats a team by 14 we shrug our shoulders and say, “Mismatch.” So, when a country like Slovakia comes out and gives out boys everything they can handle, let’s tip our cap to them, shall we?

Led by head coach and NHL veteran Petrovicky — Hartford, Dallas, St. Louis, Tampa, New York Islanders — the Slovaks have never been a U-20 powerhouse.

“After the second period the game was close,” said Petrovicky, who told his players during the second intermission, “to wait for the opportunity. It will come. It didn’t go our way at the end of the game. But I am very proud of the boys.

“Of course, we were playing a patient game and waiting for our chance. We were getting closer and closer, had a couple of chances … Every player has to buy in — that’s what we come for. To play as a team. We lost the game but I felt we played well, played hard. I’m proud of the guys.”

The only scoreless tie in Canada’s World Junior history came against the Slovaks in 1999 at Winnipeg, and since then Canada has won 14 straight in this matchup. At 14-0-1, Canada has never lost to the Slovaks, outscoring them 75-16. This game was much closer than expected, to be sure.

“After the game we were happy,” said Martin Chromiak, who had the only Slovak goal on a blistering power play wrister that made the score 2-1 for Canada with 1:24 to play. “We had so many opportunities to score a tying goal. But I think we did a really good job. We watched the game yesterday (against Germany) but we didn’t think about it.”

Goalie Samuel Hlavac only saw 23 shots. Compared to the 44 Canada fired on the German nets — or the 73 that the United States wired at the Austrian net on Boxing Day — this was almost a night off for the Slovak goaltender.

“It’s Canada, so we expect the worse,” Hlavac said. “But we played a really good game. Our guys blocked every shot, I think we can build on this game for the future.

“In the D zone we were not giving them the space. Just gave the shots from the blue-line.”

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