The beer lines were long, the red and white army was out in full foam finger force and a bunch of teenagers from Canada dominated their opponent. It must be Boxing Day. Even though the characters on the other side of the ice rotate around on a yearly basis, this has become something of a yearly ritual for Canada.
Going into Monday’s 5-3 win over Russia to open the 2017 World Junior Championship, Canada had played in 41 of these tournaments since 1976 and had a record of 34-5-2 in the opening game and had outscored its opponents by a 240-64 margin. Yeah, you read that right. There have been a few hiccups. Finland has been something of kryptonite for Canada, with five of Canada’s losses in Game 1 have come at the hands of The Little Country That Could™ and last year Canada opened the proceedings with a 4-2 loss to USA en route to a sixth-place finish.
Many of Canada’s games have been against the weaker countries in the world, which is one of the perks of finishing with so many medals. You kind of get to tiptoe your way into it. But this year, Canada had a formidable foe off the top, which might turn out to be a good thing. “It’s good to dive in head-first,” said New York Islanders prospect Matt Barzal, who scored a pretty goal on the power play. “You never want to get behind the 8-ball to start the tournament.”
Many of these games have come in the form of the one-sided variety. Who can forget that 15-0 win over France in 2002 and the 16-0 dismantling of Slovakia in 2010? Some have been downright weird, namely the 0-0 tie against Slovakia in 1999, but for the most part Canada has walked out of the arena on opening night with its head held high. And it did so again Monday night, in spite of something else that has become a rather yearly ritual with this team, a hand-wringing concern over goaltending.
In almost every area of the game, Canada was outstanding in Game 1. The puck pursuit was astounding. The Canadians made the Russians pay for their miscreant behavior with three power-play goals. Dylan Strome scored two of them and showed signs that he could be the star-power player that this team was thought to be lacking coming into the tournament. A defense corps that was supposed to be young and suspect limited the Russian team to just 17 shots on goal.
But the Russians still put three by Canadian goalie Carter Hart on just 17 shots. None of them was an oil painting, either. Now, there will be apologists out there with red and white pompoms attached to their keyboards who will protect Hart the way his teammates and his coach did – not to mention the good folks at Hockey Canada who did not make him available to post-game questions - and talk about how difficult it is to be sharp when you face so few shots and go as long between them as Hart did in Game 1. But the fact of the matter is that if Canada gets that kind of goaltending in this tournament, it will not win the gold medal. It is as simple as that. Canada no longer requires the superhuman goaltending it received in the 1980s and ’90s, but it clearly has to be better than that. Goaltending like that will get ripped to shreds by the Americans and the Swedes, if Canada faces the latter.
“Two of the three goals were tipped or we were screening him,” said Strome, being the dutiful captain. “We’ve got full confidence in him and there’s no issue with him. We feel comfortable with him in the net and we’ve either got to get in the way or get out of the way so he can make a save.”
Canadian coach Dominique Ducharme said he hasn’t decided whether Hart or Connor Ingram will get the start Tuesday night against Slovakia, but it would not be a surprise if Canada made a goaltending change. Ducharme, meanwhile, came to the defense of his goaltender as well.
“We’ll see about (Tuesday) and we’ll talk about it,” Ducharme said. “On the first two goals, as a team we gave up too-good scoring chances on those plays and on the third one I think he got touched by a stick just before the shot came in so he got knocked just a little bit. It’s not an easy gig to play when you get 17 shots.”
All in all, it was a pretty dominating performance by the host team, despite what Montreal Canadiens prospect Mikhail Sergachev said after the game. After watching his team get outshot by 20, he had this observation: “We can beat them any day. We should have won the game. They got weak in the second and third.”
We’ll file that under What-Game-Were-You-Watching-Kid? Or perhaps we can just chalk it up to youthful bravado. Either way, you have to like the way that kid rolls.