MANNHEIM, Germany - The heat has been turned up in a hurry for Canada's entry at the IIHF World Hockey Championship.
A 4-1 loss to Switzerland on Wednesday pales in comparison to the loss of top forward Steven Stamkos, who sat out the entire third period after getting hit in the jaw with Timo Helbling's elbow. Stamkos was initially able to return, but saw his condition worsen.
"He took a pretty good elbow," said coach Craig MacTavish. "We got the word from the medical staff that he came back and was feeling OK. After that, between periods, he wasn't perfect and when that happens you pull the player immediately and he sleeps on it.
"We'll assess again tomorrow and see where we stand."
The team already lost its heart-and-soul when captain Ryan Smyth fractured his left ankle earlier this week and is now facing the possibility it could be without its superstar.
General manager Mark Messier didn't want to entertain that possibility while discussing his team's impending roster decisions. He currently has 11 forwards—10 if Stamkos is unable to play on Friday—and can only name two more skaters before the end of the tournament.
Junior forward Jordan Eberle has been practising with the team and will likely be given one. The other will be used on a player who has recently seen his team eliminated from the NHL playoffs.
"We don't know what the status of Stamkos is," said Messier. "We have Eberle to move in, so we have a full roster. We do have a spot open so we'll decide tomorrow what the possibilities are after the (NHL) games tonight—who may or may not be available."
Amid the uncertainty, the team will be looking to put a tough loss to pesky Switzerland behind it.
Some of the pre-game talk centred around whether the gap in international hockey has narrowed and the Swiss made a pretty strong statement. They played an organized defensive game and took advantage of some sloppy play by a Canadian team still searching for its rhythm.
"We've got to give them credit because they played extremely hard and they played a heck of a hockey game," said Canadian goalie Chris Mason. "I don't know if we were prepared enough for that. It's something that hopefully won't happen again."
Added Ray Whitney, who replaced Smyth as captain: "They were impressive."
Thomas Deruns, Ivo Ruthemann, Martin Pluss and Andreas Ambuhl scored for Switzerland (3-0), which delivered a big victory for Canadian-born coach Sean Simpson.
He recently took over the national team from Ralph Krueger, who led the program for more than 12 years.
"It was a bit of an emotional game for me," said Simpson. "Obviously I'm Canadian and I've (worked) many times with Hockey Canada. I probably wouldn't be here right now without the experience I got with Hockey Canada, they gave me the chance on the international scene."
John Tavares replied for Canada (2-1).
The loss itself isn't a serious blow to the country's gold-medal aspirations as there are still three round-robin games to play before the quarter-finals. However, it's clear that plenty of work needs to be done ahead of that.
Corey Perry was the first Canadian player off the ice after the Swiss national anthem was played at SAP Arena and he provided a quick response when asked how the team will move forward.
"Forget about it and just learn from it," said Perry. "If we learn from our mistakes, just go over that tape and see what we did ... we're going to be alright."
Everything started to unravel for the Canadians shortly after Stamkos first left the game in the opening period. Ruthemann and Pluss put Switzerland ahead 2-0, much to the delight of the big group of singing Swiss fans who made the trip to Germany.
After Tavares narrowed the lead, Mason allowed a soft goal to Ambuhl early in the second period and Canada failed to score on four straight power plays.
The Swiss were relentless, sensing the opportunity to score another upset win over Canada to go with the one they registered at the 2006 Olympics in Turin.
"Maybe they got a little bit frustrated and they try to do it by themselves a little bit," said Swiss captain Mathias Sleger. "That's exactly what we wanted."
One thing the Canadians can't be accused of is taking their opponent lightly—even though a Swiss journalist tried to do just that during a post-game press conference with MacTavish. Coming into the game, the Canadian coach had told reporters the Swiss had been the best of the eight teams who opened this tournament in Mannheim.
He wasn't surprised by what transpired.
"We've seen them play two games (at this event), we saw them beat us in Torino, we saw them take us to a shootout at the Olympics (in Vancouver)," said MacTavish. "So it would be highly naive of us to take the Swiss lightly. ...
"We had a healthy dose of respect for them."