The phenomenon isn’t limited to hockey in the slightest (dating comes to mind), yet it’s still counterintuitive – there is such a thing as trying too hard.
When Canada got started against Slovakia Monday morning, that was my first impression after puck drop. Jonathan Drouin came out flying and took a “check to the head” penalty 10 seconds in, because what he did, you see, was check a player directly in the head, 10 seconds into the game. (Math checks out.) It felt like the team was pressing while skating into a sagging Slovakian neutral zone defense, and the frustration started to mount. And, it’s easy to see how that could happen.
Playing hockey for Canada in international play comes with the most pressure any athlete north of this continent’s 48th parallel can feel, and these kids know how important the World Juniors have become to the country (largely thanks to TSN playing it up the way ESPN has with college football and basketball). Not only is the tournament important to the country, but it’s important to their careers as individuals, and with that knowledge comes some serious stick squeezing. F*** I need this to go well, and so on.
The Slovaks got on the board first (which didn’t help), and I started to wonder something that I promise a few guys on the bench were wondering too – are we actually even good, as a team? I assumed Canada’s national junior team would be excellent (usually a safe opinion), and of course, the players assumed the same thing. But for some reason sometimes groups just can’t come together to form anything meaningful, and this looked like it could turn out to be one of those teams. I’ve been on a couple of those, and it’s a damn confusing thing.
There comes a point when you’re on the verge of thinking “maybe we actually suck” when you put the throttle down to find out what you’ve really got, which Canada appeared to do about halfway through the first period. The ice tilted dramatically, and eventually Canada drew a penalty which led to a beautiful goal on the powerplay by Curtis Lazar. Prior to that powerplay goal, Canada was opting for the “bomb it and hope” strategy on the man-advantage, which is fine when you’re Germany trying to upset a team (maybe we’ll get some bounces!) but is less-than-ideal when you’re a highly skilled team with solid possession in your opponent’s zone with an extra human on the ice. You might wanna have a look around.
When Canada came out to start the second, they played with general obliviousness to the fact that the game was being called air-tight, and their over-eager play cost them a number of penalties, and before you knew it they were down 3-1. From that point on, the Slovaks did what you’d expect them to do – they boarded up the doors and windows while Hurricane Canada smashed against their shutters, and hoped they’d be able to clear enough rebounds to hold on. And yes, I’m slightly embarrassed about that metaphor but I consider it apt enough to avoid the delete key.
You know what happened from there. Canada seemed to settle down and ended up doubling the shot total of the Slovaks (48-22, actually), and Nick Petan scored with just over two minutes left to push Canada ahead once and for all. Drouin had the big tying goal, Anthony Mantha continued his effective play, and the job got done. It’s about finding urgent but not desperate, energetic but still thoughtful, physical but not unreasonable. It’s tough to start the game there, but I thought the Canadians did a nice job creating legitimately good looks in the third instead of desperately winging pucks on net without a thought.
So, some notes:
Drouin’s physical play likely related to confidence
You may have noticed that Jonathan Drouin was, as Ray Ferraro put it, running around and acting like a power forward at times. He was also all over the refs, begging for calls, clearly desperate not to lose the game. His celebration after his tying goal reflected that too.
Personally, I think a lot of that comes from A) confidence and B) pressure. It’s not uncommon to see guys get sent down a level and step up their physical game because they feel above the level and want to establish that they will be respected (while they have less for those they’re playing). When Tim Connolly got sent from the Leafs to the Marlies, he was an absolute menace when people tried to hit/hurt him, which isn’t how he played in the bigs. I felt it myself between leagues, and I’m sure Drouin feels like he’s better than junior hockey at this point, especially seeing all the players that got drafted around him in the NHL.
The pressure part is that he knows this is sort of “his team” this year, and he doesn’t want to be responsible for a failure.
Just opinions, but I feel pretty good about those guesses.
On Connor McDavid
The phenom-to-be had a strong third period, which might be enough to get him back into the regular rotation of forwards. He started the game vs. Slovakia as the 13th forward and got some minutes in the early going with Drouin serving a 10 for his check to the head, and looked, frankly, pretty bad. I know he’s 16, I know he’s skinny, I know he’s a fantastic player. But in the first period he was on the wrong side of nearly every puck battle (not to say he lost them – he was standing on the wrong side of piles hoping for bounces), he made a poor dump-in, he flubbed a chip past a defender…he just wasn’t very good.
But as the game wore on and Canada needed a goal, he started to get some shifts with some top players, and he really sprang to life, including what would have been the tying goal had it not been waved off because he closed his hand on the puck before putting it down and making a great play. Hopefully his improved play in those big minutes instill both him and his coach with the confidence that he can be a valuable player going forward in the tournament.
Upset formula was in place, so…about that goaltending
The Slovaks very, very nearly won this game. They hit three posts, including one that would’ve put them up 4-3 late. That means Zach Fucale was beat a pretty solid amount of times, and Brent Sutter has a decision to make about who to go with next game. I didn’t think Fucale was great, but Peterson made me even more uncomfortable in the game against the Czechs, so I’ll throw my vote to Fucale for another game, before it really gets to decision time.
Canada and the USA, 11:30 a.m. EST. Check back tomorrow for my review of that game!