Big ice equals big problems for Canada

Defensive woes cost red and white a shot at back-to-back gold at WJHC

Graphic by Bram Keast

The 2016 World Junior Hockey Championships (WJHC) will go down as a tournament Team Canada would much rather forget. After only five games, the reigning champions were eliminated at the quarterfinal stage by hosts Finland in a contest that was heart-pounding and heartbreaking.

After four games in round robin, Canada assembled a subpar 1-1-0-2 record. It was quite clear that the red and white were far from replicating the dominant form displayed last year. The Canadians trailed in three of the last four matchups in the group stage, after not trailing the entire tournament in 2015.

The tournament was played on a larger ice surface – 15 feet wider than a North American rink. In recent times, international ice has proven too much for Canada to handle as the last time they won gold away from home was 2008 in the Czech Republic.

The Manitoban broke down Canada’s performance in each of the four games of the round robin as well as the quarterfinal to provide a comprehensive analysis of what exactly went wrong in 2016.


Canada vs United States

The headline for Boxing Day’s opening matchup against the United States was MacKenzie Blackwood’s two-game ban as a repercussion for his slashing penalty in the Ontario Hockey League. The 19-year old’s stealthy performance in the pretournament suggested that he would have claimed the number-one spot right from the get-go. As a result, former U18 goaltender Mason McDonald started the opener.

Dylan Strome scored a crucial third-period goal to tie the game at two after the Americans had erased a 1-0 Canada lead.

Toward the end of the third period, momentum was swinging towards the United States. Backstopped by the confident goaltending of Alex Nedeljkovic, the stars and stripes took a late lead when Louis Belpedio shot past McDonald. Auston Matthews capitalized just minutes later to kill off the game.

The US had forced Dave Lowry’s troops into taking their chances in the slot, rather than using the larger ice to maneuver around the offensive zone. Meanwhile, the Canadians did not cover their own zone particularly well, as all four US goals were set up at the attacking blue line.

McDonald’s 17 saves on 21 shots did not sit well, and the fourth and final goal was particularly nasty, as he allowed a tipped Zach Werenski point shot to squirm through his pads and Matthews was there to tap it in.

With the 4-2 defeat, Team Canada suffered their first opening day loss since 1998.


Denmark vs. Canada

Team Canada regrouped and slayed the Danes 6-1 in their second matchup of the round robin, with Lowry opting to stick with McDonald despite his questionable start to the tournament. There was a possibility that the Canadians could’ve turned to Samuel Montembeault, an 18-year-old selected as cover for McDonald, in place of Blackwood after the latter’s suspension. McDonald conceded the game’s first goal while recording just 10 saves.

There were no questions being asked regarding Canada’s offense though. They produced 58 shots against Danish goalie Mathias Seldrup. Goals arrived from six different skaters – Mathew Barzal, Anthony Beauvillier, Lawson Crouse, Mitch Marner, John Quenneville, and Strome.


Canada vs. Switzerland

Blackwood got the start for game three against the Swiss, fresh off his two-game ban.

However, Canada’s misfortunes continued right from the get-go. Just two minutes in, Noah Rod’s high-slot one-timer nicked off Damian Riat for a Swiss lead. With under five minutes left in the opening frame, Dario Meyer’s point shot deflected off Thomas Chabot and past Blackwood for a daunting 2-0 lead.

The Canadians were gifted with a light when Strome snuck a wide angle shot past Joren van Pottelberghe with 23 seconds remaining in the frame. Midway through the contest, Joe Hicketts ripped a wicked shot past the Swiss goaltender to equalize on the powerplay.

Canada took Switzerland to a shootout, however it was that moment when Blackwood and company showed up. The Barrie Colts goaltender flashed the glove on Riat and stood firm against Timo Meier, while captain Brayden Point and Mathew Barzal tallied for Canada to win 3-2.

With Blackwood established in the Canada goal, the reigning champions would close out the round robin against a feisty Swedish team on New Year’s Eve.


Sweden vs. Canada

The Canadians blew a four-goal lead in a pretournament contest to Sweden, eventually winning 7-6. In the final round robin matchup, however, the Swedes turned the tables.

Back-to-back goals from Alex Nylander and Gustav Forsling gifted the 2012 gold medalists a 2-0 cushion three minutes apart before Mitchell Stephens cut the lead in half.

Sweden would extend the lead to 4-1 courtesy of Adrian Kempe and Anton Karlsson before Marner’s late third-period goal kept Canada in the contest. Rasmus Asplund would eventually seal a 5-2 win with an empty net goal.


Canada vs. Finland

Though Canada took a 2-0 lead, the Finns managed to claw their way back. Marner added two powerplay goals which gave Canada a chance at saving their tournament, yet a painful 6-5 loss epitomized their defensive performance during the tournament.

Canada’s blueline could not tame the threat of Patrik Laine, Sebastien Aho ,and Jesse Puljujärvi – the tournament’s leading scorer with 12 points heading to the knockout rounds. Though Blackwood kept Canada in the game as both sides exchanged goals, failure to cover up rebounds and questionable positioning played a part in their downfall.

Jake Virtanen perhaps contributed the most to Finland’s 6-5 victory. The Canadian-born Finn took two brainless penalties which negated Canada’s man advantage, while Finland scored on the ensuing powerplay for the eventual winning goal.

History managed to repeat itself at the final whistle, as Canada also failed to defeat the hosts on the two previous occasions when the tournament was held in Finland (1998 and 2014).


What went wrong?

Canada produced a strong forechecking game, but they needed to continue taking advantage of the bigger ice. They did so at certain times offensively – such as the 5-2 loss to Sweden – where Stephen’s goal on Chabot’s point shot gave them some hope, but it sadly didn’t last.

Defensively, the Canadians were outskated and didn’t possess the coverage to play on the backcheck. Often, the blue-liners were being passed way too easily on the larger surface, specifically in the games against the U.S., Switzerland, Sweden, and Finland.


Who needed to improve?

Jake Virtanen did not give Canada the slightest spark while on loan from the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks. Even worse, he was expected to become a leading player in Canada’s lineup as a member from last year’s team. Through the first four games, the right winger was held pointless – disappointing to say the least. For being one the most highly touted prospects in the NHL as well as a returning gold medalist, Virtanen was not even close to performing at a Team Canada level.


The verdict

Canadian head coach Dave Lowry possessed the talent to clinch at least a medal at the 2016 World Junior Championships. However, with a side that was dominated by 18-year-olds, Canada seriously lacked in their defensive game.

Despite their obvious threats on paper, Canada didn’t perform like medal contenders right from the start. As the minutes went by in their tournament, it looked more and more likely that the red and white would be headed home without a top-three finish.