Faced with first genuine test of 2021 world juniors, Canada falls short

Canada players react after their loss to the United States in IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship gold medal game action in Edmonton on Tuesday, January 5, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

EDMONTON — Some like the cakewalk, those fluffy two weeks of beating the spread against teams that don’t have a single player who could make Team Canada, had they been born here.

Some look at the cakewalk as a Canadian’s chance to be loud and proud. To paint our faces and travel in groups to foreign lands like hockey vikings. Then, when we predictably beat up on a Germany, a Switzerland, a Latvia — or even a Russia — us Canadians go full Uncle Sam in our chest thumping.

Full disclosure: The world junior team has always been our Dream Team. We may say, “I’m sorry,” more than any other nation, but from Dec. 26 to Jan. 5 we become the Ugly Canadians as often as not.

Somehow we’ve created ‘A Holiday Tradition’ out of watching our kids demolish kids from other countries in lopsided affairs that one would think Canadians, of all people, would be more likely to apologize for than celebrate. Instead, we justify it with a chorus of, “It’s not our boys’ fault that they put us on the weak side of the draw.”

As it turns out though, it can be our boys’ problem.

After two weeks of never giving up an even-strength goal, of outscoring their opponents 41-4, of recording shutouts in every second game — OF NEVER TRAILING EVEN FOR A SINGLE SECOND — Canada was defeated 2-0 in the gold-medal game by the United States Tuesday night in Edmonton.

Trevor Zegras had a goal and an assist for Team USA, but his most accurate shots came before the game, when he put into words what every Canadian fan was quietly fearing.

“I don’t think they’ve been tested by a real team yet,” Zegras said. “I don’t think this goalie has been tested five-on-five yet.”

Hey, it’s not bragging if you can do it.

“There are a lot of good teams in this tournament, and they’re one of them,” said the magnificent Canadian defenceman Bowen Byram after the game. “We made the best push we could in the third. We had a lot of chances. It didn’t go in.”

Canada opened the game with a 7-2 run on the shot clock, and then Team USA took over. American defenceman Drew Helleson drifted a harmless wrist shot towards the net, and Alex Turcotte (Alfie’s boy) cruised through the slot and redirected the puck past Devon Levi, and suddenly the record books were wiped clean.

Canada’s even-strength goal streak? Gone in their seventh game.

Levi’s 148 minute, 20 second shutout streak? History.

You haven’t trailed the entire tournament? Well, boys, you’re trailing now.

Zegras scored early in Period 2 and the score was 2-0 after 40 minutes, but there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that the game was still absolutely up for grabs.

“Going into the third we have to believe we’re going to tie the game,” said Dylan Cozens, Canada’s best player here. “We had our looks. (Goalie Spencer) Knight played great, but we didn’t get the bounces.”

Had the Hockey Gods dispensed all of Canada’s fortune on goals against the Germans (16 of them), the Swiss (10) and Russia (a 5-0 win)? Had Canada used all its luck up at the 25-cent slots, and now gone hungry at the $20 table?

Look, there are a lot of ways to diagnose a power outage by a team that had scored 41 times in seven games prior to this silver-medal game. We would start with crediting the opponent, and the fabulous play of Knight in the Team USA net.

But something sticks with me:

Throughout the tournament, Canadian coach Andre Tourigny repeatedly sought to find adversity in every game, no matter what the score, that Canada had overcome to find victory. Whether it was a penalty kill in a 4-1 game, the 53 days spent in hotels since training camp opened, the 14-day quarantine in Red Deer or a bad few shifts against Slovakia, Tourigny’s mantra after every game was that his team was learning to deal with adversity and that was a welcome and necessary lesson.

Looking back, was he inventing that adversity? Had it really existed, to the extent that they knew what to do in the face of the genuine article that the Americans threw at them Tuesday?

“The COVID test we had in camp, we had to quarantine for 14 days by ourselves. That’s adversity that we battled through,” declared Cozens. “We played great through all the games, and we ran into a good team like this. But it’s not the first adversity we faced.”

OK, then perhaps the better question is this: Can the adversity of playing a team that is your equal be manufactured elsewhere, using quarantines and a bunch teams that don’t deserve to be on the same ice as Canada?

Is it impossible to manufacture adversity, the way Tourigny tried to?

“It’s the first team that really pushed back, we were not used to it, and we didn’t have enough time to get back at it,” the coach said. “After we adjusted we were really good. But, no one will remember that.

“They’ll remember the score.”

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