Friday was a crazy day at the 2012 World Juniors.  Almost a surreal day.

After Canada destroyed Finland in their opening game, the conventional wisdom repeated virtually everywhere was that the Americans were their only real competition in the pool.  All week, the media has kept an eye on the pending Canada/USA showdown, with Canadian players answering multiple questions about their memories of games against the U.S., their thoughts on playing them and the like.

Now, the outcome of that game is all but meaningless; regardless of winner Canada will advance to the semi-finals, and the United States will be forced to play in the relegation round.

As they did in their loss to Finland, the United States controlled the play in their game against the Czechs.  Granted, they were helped immensely by the Czech’s poor discipline – at 5-on-5, the U.S. was on relatively even footing, but the Czechs were forced to kill off 17 minutes in penalties, and that doesn’t even include the penalty shot and the game misconduct.  The Americans, in contrast, spent just six minutes in the box all game.

Unfortunately, just as in their loss to Finland, the Americans couldn’t build a firm lead.  Petr Mrazek, who was robbed of player of the game honours (it was so blatant that when the Czechs gave the honour to Petr Holik, the crowd booed before chanting “Mrazek, Mrazek, Mrazek!”), kept the score knotted at two goals each.  And, again as with their loss to Finland, once the Americans surrendered the go-ahead goal the team imploded.  All the pressure, all the chances, all control of the game was ceded to the Czechs, who scored three consecutive goals in the third period.

The loss means that the Americans can no longer finish higher than fourth, which will place them in the relegation round alongside Denmark.  Canada has won the ‘B’ pool and will advance to the semifinals, while the Czechs and Finns will both play in the quarterfinals, with their matchups determined by the winner of their game against each other tomorrow.

The other deciding factor was Finland’s 10-1 victory over Denmark, a game which felt like a foregone conclusion before the puck was even dropped.  Partly, this feeling was because of Denmark’s previous showings, but it was also partly because prior to the game Danish coach Todd Bjorkstrand suspended five of his skaters for the contest, forcing him to play with just 15 skaters.

The reason was because after losing to Canada, those five players (including the team’s leading goal-scorer) went up to the coaches’ press conference area and indulged in a bit of acting, pretending to answer questions about the game.

“It’s not the way we want to see our players acting after we lose a game 10-2 to Team Canada,” Bjorkstrand said.  “It’s the wrong way.  That’s it.”

Bjorkstrand also said that he had not yet made a decision on whether the suspended players would return to the team for the remainder of the tournament, or whether they would sit out longer.

The absence of that quintet was noticeable on the ice.  Denmark may only have lost by a 10-1 score, but the Finns had a goal at the end of the game waved off because the puck hadn’t crossed the line until after the period had ended, and they also rang pucks off the post on four separate occasions.  As Finnish winger Teemu Pulkkinen, who scored four goals, <a href= http://theworldofjuniorhockey.blogspot.com/2011/12/finlands-rout-sends-us-down.html >put it</a>, “We didn’t play so well, but Denmark wasn’t so good. We got easy goals.”

Czech Republic 5, United States 2

 We discussed the game at length above, so just a few points here.  Petr Mrazek stopped 52 of 54 shots to record the win, while Petr Holik tallied twice, scoring both the winner and the empty-netter.  Bill Arnold was the Americans’ best player, picking up a goal, an assist, and winning 18 of 24 faceoffs.

 Finland 10, Denmark 1

 Pulkkinen scored four goals and added an assist for the Finns, while Miikka Salomaki and Mikael Granlund each picked up four points in the lopsided victory.  Patrick Bjorkstrand had four of Denmark’s 13 shots, and scored their lone goal on a penalty shot opportunity.

Sweden 9, Slovakia 1

 Sweden routed the Slovaks, despite the best efforts of goaltender Dominik Riecicky, who kicked out 46 shots.  The Swedes got scoring from 15 different players in the win, with Erik Thorell earning best player honours for scoring twice and adding an assist.  Edmonton Oilers’ prospect Oscar Kelfbom led the team with a plus-5 rating.  Michal Toman was recognized as the Slovak’s best player – he picked up an assist on the goal, finished with an even plus/minus (one of just four players to do so), and was also the only Slovak center to win more face-offs than he lost.

The victory ensures that tomorrow’s game between Sweden and Russia will be for first overall in the ‘A’ pool.  Sweden currently sits one point back, by virtue of one of their wins coming in overtime while all of Russia’s have come in regulation.  The winner will advance to the semi-finals; the loser will play in the quarterfinals.

Switzerland 5, Latvia 3

 The Swiss dominated the shot-clock, outshooting the Latvians 41 to 23, but the score was kept surprisingly close, with the game tied 3-3 with seven minutes left in the contest,  but then the Swiss scored two consecutive goals.  Latvia got a power-play opportunity with two minutes remaining and pulled their goaltender, but weren’t able to even things up.

Switzerland must be considered the favourites for tomorrow’s game against Slovakia, but the game hasn’t been decided yet.  The loser will join the Latvians in the relegation tournament, while the winner will advance to the quarterfinals and play the winner of Finland/Czech Republic.

Dougie Hamilton: A Top-Two Defenseman For Canada; Almost A Maple Leaf

A lot of people were surprised when Dougie Hamilton fell to ninth overall in the 2011 Draft.  The 6’4” defenseman, the child of two Olympians and brother of 2010 pick Freddie Hamilton, was coming off a season where he had recorded 58 points in 67 games in the Ontario Hockey League.  Big, capable and intelligent (like Scott Niedermayer before him, Hamilton was the scholastic player of the year in major junior hockey) Hamilton represented the kind of talent that every NHL team needs on their blueline.

If the draft were re-done today, one imagines Hamilton would be taken earlier.

The vagaries of the NHL Draft typically don’t mean a lot to Hockey Canada.  While NHL teams are projecting one, five or even 10 years in the future when they make their picks, Hockey Canada’s job is to find the best players for specific roles in the here and now.  It’s the reason an older player – like Dougie’s brother Freddie – might make the team despite a lack of draft pedigree, while a younger player who is viewed as a better NHL prospect might get cut.  The latter point is something that both Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (1st overall in 2011) and Tyler Seguin (2nd overall in 2010) can attest to.

That isn’t to say that the upper ends of the draft aren’t represented.  Canada’s blue-line boasts five first-round draft picks, one player certain to go early in the 2012 Draft (Ryan Murray) and one second-round pick (stay-at-home defender Scott Harrington).  But being a top-end draft pick doesn’t guarantee anyone a spot – something that makes Hamilton’s role on Canada’s top defensive pairing all the more impressive.

Brandon Gormley, Hamilton’s defense partner, certainly appreciates what his teammate brings to the table.  “He’s a great guy and a great player,” Gormley said, “He’s an easy guy to play with, very heady, a smart player and I think we support each other very well.”

For his own part, Hamilton didn’t enter training camp with any expectations as to what his role would be.  He knew that he was enjoying a good season in the OHL, but was just excited to represent his country.

While Canadian fans will undoubtedly be cheering for Hamilton to show exactly how dominant he can be when the medal round starts, that cheering might be laced with a tinge of bitterness for Maple Leafs fans.  Hamilton is a Toronto native, and in 2011 the Leafs should have, by virtue of their finish, owned the ninth overall pick.  However, along with the Seguin pick, it was one of those selections sent to Boston for Phil Kessel.  While Kessel’s performance this year should keep complaints to a minimum, the knowledge that he’ll soon be a key player for rival Boston will make any brilliance on his part at least a little bittersweet.

Hamilton, a Toronto native, says that he’s thought about how close he might have been to playing for his hometown team.

“I think that’s one of the first things that came into my head when the Bruins were about to select.  I kind of went through the scenarios and stuff like that, and it definitely came up right away a lot of people talked about it.  All my friends from Toronto kind of said, “You could have been a Leaf” and stuff like that.”

But while Hamilton may never get the chance to be an impact player for the Maple Leafs, he’s certainly been an impact player wearing one on his jersey at this tournament.

Around the Rink

  •  Canada worked on some oddball stuff in practice on Friday, covering 6-on-5, 5-on-6 and 4-on-4 situations.  “I feel a lot more comfortable going into that overtime knowing that we’ve worked on things,” coach Don Hay said.
  • Hay has also decided who will start against the Americans, but as usual he’s keeping that information to himself.  “Whoever we decide… we feel really comfortable with,” he said.  Hay also confirmed that outside of Devante Smith-Pelly, health is good pretty much across the board for Team Canada.
  • “Oh my god,” was the first think out of Radek Faksa’s mouth when I asked him to talk about Petr Mrazek’s performance for the Czechs.  That’s as succinct and accurate a summation of Mrazek’s play as I’ve seen anywhere.
  • For his part, Mrazek was direct and candid in answering questions after the game.  Asked what he thought of the American players distaste for his celebrations, he said, “Well, I don’t care about the U.S. team.”
  • Both Faksa and Mrazek had some specific instances where they felt the referees had been unfair to the Czech team, but assistant coach Jiri Fischer disagreed.  “The calls that were made, we deserved,” he said.  “It’s obviously not very good when we’re killing penalties for almost a whole period in one game… we’d better get more disciplined.”