It felt nervy for a while, tense, a spring being turned, slow and steady. Canada was the better team, obviously, but Slovakia wasn’t in awe this time, and their goalie was good. They had some scoring chances. With two minutes left in the second period it was 1-0 for the home team, but the home team was starting to seem a little too eager, in the way that teams sometimes do. Remember Latvia, in Sochi? Yeah. Latvia felt like this.
And then Connor McDavid delivered a sublime pass to Nic Petan, who roofed his second goal of the game, and then defenceman Shea Theodore scored on a breakaway, 3-0, phew. The Slovaks scored with 3.4 seconds left in the period, so it wasn’t a walk. But there was some breathing room.
It ended 5-1. Canada probably needed to play with tension after rolling through this world junior tournament. The semifinal was against a team Canada had pounded 8-0, but this is hockey. It’s not always easy. As a translator put it for Slovak goaltender Denis Godla before the game, “Himself and all the team, it’s the game of their life, and they will leave everything on the ice.” Godla was fantastic, unbelievable. He was human, though.
So Canada had to play with some pressure, hold their form, and they will play Russia in the final, and that’s perfect. Russia has beaten Canada in four straight tournaments, including that precipitous collapse against the Russians in Buffalo in 2011, and the Russian kids were so drunk the next morning officials wouldn’t let them board their plane. This will be a chance to bury some Canadian ghosts, and win gold for the first time since 2009. Russia looked sharp in their 4-1 victory over Sweden in the other semifinal, and are crammed with 19-year-olds in what is always called a 19-year-old tournament.
For Canada, though, McDavid’s flashes of terrifying speed and skill and vision are becoming more frequent after that pre-tournament 40-day layoff, and the 17-year-old was breathtaking in this game. Zach Fucale is providing good work in net, and team depth remains so strong. Last year, after a second straight semifinal loss, TSN’s Bob McKenzie, who is a defining voice on this tournament, said Canada was playing big games like they were afraid to lose. Well, Canada’s senior men started the year with a dominant, skill-based run in Sochi, and this junior team is one game from following the path.
“(What I remember) was the final against Sweden, when they just destroyed them, they dominated this game,” said defenceman Sam Morin, a towering and cheerful Philadelphia Flyers draft pick. “They had a really good defence, Carey Price was really good, but I think it was just the last game when they said, this is over.”
Asked if he thinks this junior team can be comparably dominant in their own tournament, Morin smiled wider and said, “Yeah, I think so. We have a really good team. We have a lot of depth in the D-men, a lot of forwards, two good goalies. We have a good team, and we’re ready to face anything.”
Of course, not everything goes as planned. Look at Montreal, where even Team Canada’s games didn’t sell out. On Sunday, International Ice Hockey Federation president Rene Fasel blamed Hockey Canada, mostly — maybe for greed, maybe incompetence. (Ticket packages were bundled in both cities, and in Montreal a 13-game pack went for between $431 and $1,191.) This tournament will finish between 70,000 to 90,000 short of the 453,000 or so in Ottawa in 2009, and behind 444,000 in Calgary and Edmonton in 2012, too. When asked directly, the IIHF did not rule out pulling the tournament out of Montreal in 2016-17, when it will co-host again with Toronto.
Fasel also said the World Cup will be negotiated before Olympic participation, said he liked the idea of all-star teams in the No. 7 and 8 spots, after Canada, the United States, Russia, Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic, and mentioned the 2022 Olympics are probably going to China while he was at it.
“The Olympics will be another issue, because the time zone is very difficult with Asia, with Pyeongchang,” said Fasel, who is on the IOC executive board. “And we know also that 2022 will be in Asia, Kazakhstan or China. I think China is favoured there to win that race, so ’22 will go to China. So to be very honest, after five times participating in the Olympics, this one will be a bigger challenge.” Asked about it afterwards, Fasel smiled his Swiss dentist’s smile and said, “I have to apologize; I do not have any right to do so, to say as an IOC member that they are favourites. So they will kick my ass, but what can I do? This is a fact. China is a favourite.”
Fasel tends to tell the truth when it’s convenient, and believes that if the players want to go, they will. With the junior tournament, of course, there is no question. Canada will play in Helsinki next year, and they will play for gold on Monday against Russia. There is no guarantee everything will go according to plan, of course, ever, always. But it’s down to one game now, and that’s all anybody can ever ask.