Backhand Shelf will be running a daily recap of the major stories and events during the World Junior Championship thanks to our man on the ground in Alberta, Jonathan Willis. You can follow him on Twitter here.
Low-Ranked Teams Crush Lower-Ranked Teams
Both component states of former Czechoslovakia were in action, and both faced off against the two teams most likely to be headed for relegation. And while there’s a clear gap between the talent between the big teams in this tournament and the more middle of the pack entries, that same gap exists between the teams at the bottom and the teams in the middle.
The Czech Republic crushed Denmark, while Slovakia walked away with a less impressive score thanks to a heroic performance from Latvia’s goalie. Notes from both games are included, along with some comments from Canada’s practice and media availability a little earlier in the day.
Czech Republic 7, Demark 0
A terrifyingly mismatched affair that saw a fresh Czech squad dominate a tired Danish team in all aspects of the game. The shots were 20-2 at one point, and the Czech’s outmuscled, outhustled, and simply looked like they were in an entirely different tier than the Danes. When people talk about imbalances at the World Juniors, this is precisely the sort of game they have in mind, and it’s a good reminder that the gap between the teams at the bottom of the tournament standings can be quite significant.
Nothing, for me, quite captured the essence of the game as a look at the rink midway through the second period. With half of the frame expired, the Danish end was completely covered with shavings from where skates had carved into the ice. The Czech zone, in contrast, gleamed as freshly as if it the Zamboni had just pulled off the rink.
It wasn’t just a matter of controlling the position of the play or the possession of the puck, either, though the Czechs did both. There was also the matter of physical play, where for the most part the Czechs simply ran the Danes around. The Danish team played with spirit, and they didn’t back down, but for the most part they simply couldn’t compete with the Czechs physically any more than they could on the scoreboard.
Slovakia 3, Latvia 1
An undisciplined Slovakian squad took six penalties – and offered up a full, two-minute long 5-on-3 power play to their Latvian opposition – but in the end it really didn’t matter. On the Slovak’s top three forward lines and first two defense pairings, no player finished with less than at least two shots. Marek Tverdon, who led the team with seven shots, scored one goal and Tomas Jurco scored another to give the team a 2-1 lead. While Latvian goalie Kristers Gudlevskis stopped 43 others the Slovakians would also add an empty-netter.
Around the Rink
The loss of Smith-Pelly for the remainder of the tournament was the hot topic after Canada’s practice on Tuesday, and many of the players opined that the team would be playing the remainder of the tournament for him. Smith-Pelly, when asked the sort of thing he’d say to encourage the team (he’ll stay with them for the rest of the tournament despite being injured), was clear: “I don’t have to say anything. They all know what’s at stake here.”
- With Smith-Pelley gone, Canada’s lines saw some minor tweaking. Brett Connolly stepped up from the fourth line to fill Devante-Pelly’s spot alongside Quinton Howden and Tanner Pearson went from 13th forward to a regular spot on the fourth line. Asked about the elevation of Pearson, Canadian coach Don Hay suggested that the “13th forward” designation tended to be a little overblown and that the lineup was a fluid thing. “You have to understand that with this tournament, roles change, because of the pressure of the tournament,” Hay said, “Some people can handle the pressure, and some people can’t. When you can’t handle the pressure, you move down very quickly. When you show you can handle it, you move up very quickly.”
- Once again, Hay was asked about Freddie Hamilton, and once again made no secret about his admiration for Canada’s primary defensive forward. ““I really love Freddie Hamilton. Coachable young man, because he’s so intelligent. We asked him last night to do a good job against Granlund, no problem. He did exactly what we told him to – he won faceoffs, was on the defensive side of the puck, and created offense. He’s the kind of player that coaches really enjoy coaching, because he doesn’t question why you’re doing things, or how you’re doing things, he just goes out and does what’s best for the team. I think he gives up a lot from his individual play, because I think he can play a high role. To me, the role he played last night is one of the most important on the team. It doesn’t just mean scoring goals to be a good player.” It’s worth noting that Hamilton’s a pretty successful scorer back in junior, which ties into the coach’s point about sacrificing personal offense for the good of the team.
- I got a chance to ask Brendan Gallagher about what it meant to the team to have Visentin play so well in the game against Finland, given the pressure and attention on him in the tournament. “We know there’s a lot of pressure on him. In our locker room we don’t worry about Visser at all; we know what he’s going to bring every game, that’s not a worry of ours at all. We know what he’s going to do.”
- As for Visentin, it was interesting to hear him explain how he approaches playing in different games. “You know, to be honest I don’t change my approach to any game. We’re all here because we’re good at playing hockey, so I’m just going to go out there and play the best I can.” In other words, he tries not to overthink things: regardless of the situation, all he can do is all he can do.
- One of the areas the Czechs feel they can compete with Canada is in net. Petr Mrazek was left off the team last year (as assistant coach Jiri Fischer put it: “This is first time in the tournament; politics for some reason kept him out of the tournament last year”) but the Detroit prospect is highly regarded. According to fellow Czech Radek Faksa, a regular opponent of Mrazek in the OHL, he’s “maybe the best goalie in the Ontario Hockey League.” Mrazek hasn’t gotten the attention that the goalies of other top countries have, but asked if his abilities weren’t being properly recognized at the tournament Fischer was succinct: “We know the strength of Petr and whatever everybody else thinks that’s their decision.”
- One could have been forgiven for thinking that Fischer had been behind the bench of a losing team; while his charges were boisterous (their dressing room erupted with cheers and chants after the game) he was level-headed and decidedly critical of his team’s game. He didn’t like the penalties they took, he didn’t like some of the hits guys didn’t see coming, he didn’t like their tendency to miss shots from the blue line… there was absolutely no trace of overconfidence, just a grim determination that his team would be better still when facing Canada. Asked about his team’s game plan against the favourites, Fischer said in part, “We have to play very structured, even better details than we had today… we took some penalties. Putting Canada on the power play is definitely not going to be a smart idea tomorrow, so we need to be even a little better prepared than we were today.”
- Radek Faksa, mentioned earlier, is a top prospect for this year’s NHL Draft. He’s been climbing steadily in most draft rankings month-to-month and has 16 goals and 17 assists in 31 games for Kingston. Red Line Report ranked him as the 26th-best prospect for the 2012 Draft in their December bulletin. Faksa’s favourite NHL team is the Edmonton Oilers and he’d love it if they selected him, but in the end he said, “Really it doesn’t matter to me. I’m excited for draft, and hope that I will go very high.”
- On the Danish side of things, the reaction was mixed. Sebastien Feuk, who had valiantly tried to keep his team in the game, was clearly dispirited following the loss; his first words to the media were, “I don’t have much to say right now,” and when asked if he’d felt like he had to hold the team in a lopsided game said simply, “I have to. I’m the goalie.” Canucks’ prospect (and Denmark’s top player) Nicklas Jensen was less crushed; disappointed but realistic, while head coach Todd Bjorkstrand was visibly angry at his team’s performance.
- Bjorkstrand, asked about his team’s game plan against Canada, chuckled slightly in disbelief before saying, “That’s going to be, uhh… yeah. We’ll take a look at a little bit of the tape, and we’ll practice tomorrow. Obviously we’re going to have to be very well prepared and come with the right intensity and the right attitude to play against a team like Canada.”
- More Bjorkstrand: “We’re here in Canada, playing in the World Championships. [The effort level] should be there every night, every shift in my opinion. It should be a given.”
- Niklas Jensen went on at some length about the Danish special teams, the importance of avoiding relegation, and the new wave of young Danish players making their mark at the NHL level. He also talked about his OHL teammate, Boone Jenner, now playing for Canada: “He is my linemate back home, and a really great guy, but obviously when he’s out there I want to hit the guy really hard.”