MONTREAL – Here’s how important Canada’s win was over USA in the World Junior Championship on New Year’s Eve: Had the Canadians lost, they would have faced a quarterfinal game against Russia, the country that has beaten Canada in crucial games in each of the past four championships. Instead Canada gets Denmark, a team that is the tournament darling and will have no pressure and high-end talent, but one Canada should still be able to defeat 11 times out of 10.
And it gets even better for Canada. Should it beat Denmark in the quarterfinal, it will then face the winner of the quarterfinal between Slovakia and the Czech Republic. To put it simply, Canada could not have asked for a more favorable path to the gold medal game than the one it has earned.
And here’s how important 2014 second overall pick and future Buffalo Sabre Sam Reinhart was to the fact Canada won the game: Vitally. In a game between two teams whose hallmark is puck possession, Reinhart was the biggest reason Canada had the puck on its players’ sticks most of the time he was out there. Reinhart won 78 percent of his faceoffs and took uberprospect Jack Eichel to school on the faceoff dot. (Reason No. 2,376 why draft eligible players often struggle in this tournament. Reinhart is almost a year older than Eichel and the age difference showed Wednesday night.) Reinhart's two-way play was exemplary and when he had the puck, all he did was make outstanding decision after outstanding decision with it.
Case in point was Reinhart’s unselfish play in the dying seconds of the game. Already having scored an empty-netter, Reinhart picked off a pass and was faced with a defender and an empty net with the Americans having scored to make the score 4-3. Instead of going for the empty-netter or dumping the puck in, he glanced it off the boards, where Max Domi picked it up in full flight before depositing it into the empty net to make the final score 5-3.
“It just goes to show you how smart ‘Rhino’ really is,” Domi said. “Anyone else, me included, would have tried to go up the middle and get a little antsy, but he put it right on my tape. It was like Ping-Pong. I don’t know how he did it.”
Speaking of the unexplained, it’s tough to fathom how the referees and video review officials allowed what turned out to be the most crucial goal of the game. By definition of the International Ice Hockey Federation’s rule concerning goalie interference, Curtis Lazar’s goal to make it 3-1 looked an awful lot like goaltender interference.
Rule 151 (ii) in the IIHF rulebook reads: “If an attacking player in possession of the puck, skating forward or backward, makes contact with the goaltender in the goal crease and the puck enters the goal net, the goal will not be allowed and the attacking skater will be assessed at least a minor penalty.” Take a look at Lazar’s goal. The only thing your trusty correspondent can come up with is the video review officials deemed that Lazar was not “in possession of the puck.”
To their credit, though, the Americans did not use that non-call as an excuse. In fact, American coach Mark Osiecki said he tells his players to go hard to the net all the time himself. And none of the players seemed to have much of a complaint with it.
So now Canada reaps the rewards of going 4-0-0 and winning Group A. With the tournament now shifting to Toronto for the Canadian team, it will now face the pluckiest team in the bunch and one that enters the game with not one shred of pressure on it. All the pressure and expectation will be on Canada to get to the semifinal and it will face a team that has some very impressive high-end talent in Columbus Blue Jackets prospect Oliver Bjorkstrand and Winnipeg Jets hopeful Nikolaj Ehlers and capable goaltending from Georg Sorensen.
But let’s face it. Once the reality of what the Danes are up against hits Friday night, Canada should win this game handily. The thing with teams that overachieve the way Denmark has is that when reality hits, it hits really hard. If Canada’s depth of talent can overcome the American team, defeating Denmark is as close to a sure thing as Canada was going to get in this tournament. No amount of expectation and pressure should make up for the enormous gap of depth and talent Canada has over Denmark.
“We have to prepare and play our game,” said Canadian coach Benoit Groulx. “It doesn’t change. We have to take them very seriously. We have to prepare for them like we did against the U.S. today and we have to prepare exactly the same way we did against Germany, Slovakia and Finland. And we’ll do the same thing against Denmark. For me nothing has changed."