When I had to explain to my relatives over Christmas why I was waking up at 4:15 in the morning to watch a hockey game involving two countries that are not the United States, their immediate question was, “Is Germany any good?” I said that of course they weren’t. This is a four- or maybe five-team tournament and pretty much always has been no matter how many countries the IIHF allows to qualify.
So yes, the World Junior Championships kicked off in Ufa, Russia, today, but I’m not sure everyone on Team Canada got the memo. Sure, they trounced Germany 9-3 in a game that started at 4:30 a.m. Eastern Time, but one has to imagine that the many Canadians across the country who set an alarm for this one were disappointed to have not just caught it on DVR and gotten the extra three hours of sleep. The Canadians were often disjointed and calamitous in defense. I saw some comments soon after the game about how tough it was for Malcolm Subban (he said he was “nervous!”), who didn’t look great in conceding three goals but will remain Canada’s starter for the next game anyway, since he didn’t face a lot of shots, but hell, the Canadians conceded 28.
The headline here is that the team racked up nine goals, and that’s not nothing. But going in, against a German team that has been relegated out of the tournament the last several times it’s actually qualified, most likely would have said that scoring double-digits should have been the expectation, and winning by double-digits the goal. Throughout the game, it seemed that everything ran through Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, as you might expect for a guy who was nearly a point-a-game player as an 18-year-old NHL rookie last season. He finished the game a mere plus-2, but he racked up a goal and four assists, including having a hand in Canada’s first four goals. Jonathan Huberdeau somehow avoided assaulting a linesman in racking up three points, and was the second-best player on the ice as you would expect. The two forwards were so dynamic together they even got Mark Scheifele a pair of tap-in goals, which is no small feat considering how bad Scheifele is. Literally any player on the roster could have been on their wing and gotten the same production, including Subban in full goalie gear.
But back to that hideous Canadian defense. It’s not so much so much that they allowed three goals on 28 shots (though obviously neither total should be considered in any way acceptable), it’s how they did it. The first German goal came because no one was within 15 feet of the goalscorer, who was camped at the backdoor. The second came because no one got back for a 2-on-1 that gave Leonhard Pfoderl a clean look at the net. The third was an egregious own-zone turnover off a draw by Mark McNeill, that, to be fair, no one should have been ready for. But the problem remains: Does anyone on Canada have any idea how to shut down opposing offenses? If the Germans got goals from two different lines, what will a team with actual depth do to carve up the Canadian defense? Steve Spott better come up with an answer before he plays teams with real medal hopes.
A six-goal win is all well and good, but when we’re constantly told that in this tournament Goal Differential Matters and therefore There’s No Such Thing As Running It Up, this isn’t something with which Canada can be in any way happy. The good news, I guess, is that Canada was fast and didn’t take too many penalties. The former was expected, the latter not so much.
Russia 3, Slovakia 2 (OT)
Gord Miller put it pretty well midway through the third period of this one: A win like this is a pretty tepid start for Russia. The fact that it went to overtime at all, for example, is ridiculous and should never have happened. But when you don’t do much to press the attack (they only led in shots 32-24) and take dumbass late penalties (Maxim Shalunov crosschecking someone in the face for a double minor with 2:20 to go), then you’re opening yourself up for trouble. Russia opened a 2-0 lead but the Slovaks chipped away, and netted the game-tying goal on the power play with 36 seconds left. But then late in overtime, with their loser point secured, David Bajanik got called for a trip he had to make to save a clear chance, and Albert Yarullin launched a Soyuz rocket of a shot right off the ensuing draw. The result here is important, though, because by conceding the overtime period, Russia only gets two points for the win, instead of three for closing it out in regulation. Remember when these guys were the favorites? Hahaha.
Finland 5, Latvia 1
This game kind of continued the theme of teams not blowing out teams they should crush, because Latvia is terrible and, as both the U.S. and Canada learned to their dismay in pre-tournament games, Finland is not. Final shots in this one were 44-12 to the Finns, and though this game wasn’t on TV in North America, one imagines that doesn’t quite tell the full story. It seems Finland utterly dominated and to only emerge with five goals was kind of surprising. The winners were led by Miro Aaltonen, who scored two goals and set up another, but also broke his ankle and is certainly done for the tournament, if not the season. That’s bad news, even though Aaltonen isn’t a top-line guy. At this point, his spot on the roster cannot be replaced.
Sweden 4, Czech Republic 1
The big deal for Sweden isn’t so much that it held the Czechs to a goal, but that it did so without its top three defensemen. Before the game, it was revealed that Hampus Lindholm was out for the tournament with a concussion, which explains why he wasn’t added to the team’s roster. That makes three first-round picks without which the Swedes will have to make do on the blue line (Jonas Brodin and Oscar Klefbom being the others), in addition to Mika Zibanejad being gone up front. The reigning gold medalists got goals from four different players, and only one had more than one point. Leads one to wonder just how far this team can go in defending its title.