HELSINKI — If the element of doubt is creeping into the minds of Canadian players, they’re not letting on.
Still, when players start using phrases like “showing character” and “building confidence,” it’s telling because those words aren’t usually related to games involving Switzerland.
But there it was. The Swiss — a team Canada has beaten 20 straight times, usually handily — put a scare in the defending gold medallists at the world junior hockey championship.
Canada won again, but needed to rally from a 2-0 deficit, survive some harrowing moments and rely ultimately on a shootout to earn the 3-2 decision.
“We had to put our work boots and hard hats back on,” said Canadian defenceman Joe Hicketts. “When you fall in a 2-0 hole it’s something you never want to do. The character in that room shone through there and we were able to come out of that deficit.
“It was a tight-checking game and we can establish that and that type of game, I think it’s a positive going forward.”
Hicketts is one of the character players on the Canadian team, guys with backbone who are able to lift their teammates.
It’s just a tad surprising that a team with 12 NHL first-round picks, 19 gold medals collectively from various international tournaments and 204 goals with their club teams needed to play the character card so early.
But that’s what trump cards are for. And it was never-say-quit Hicketts who rallied the team.
“Joe Hicketts, he’s a stud,” said centre Matthew Barzal, one of two Canadians to score in the shootout. “He’s not the biggest guy out there but he makes up for it with his intensity. He blocks shots, plays against their top lines and he’s a great guy to have on your team.”
Hicketts is 5-foot-8, 175 pounds. He was hitting Swiss players much taller and heavier. He was blocking shots. He scored the goal that tied the game in the second period.
“We’ve got good leaders in Hicketts, (Lawson) Crouse and (Brayden) Point,” said Barzal, mentioning three players who won gold last year.
“Those guys kind of calmed the group down. They’ve been through this before so they knew what we needed to do to win.”
But more importantly, perhaps, Hicketts was one of the guys who spoke up in the first intermission, with Canada trailing 2-1 and unsure what to make of the speedy and physical Swiss. Hicketts wears an A for a reason, and it became apparent Tuesday.
“It was about getting back to work,” Hicketts said of the message. “Maybe we underestimated them a little bit, maybe the respect factor wasn’t there and maybe it was just a lack of preparation.
“We knew that when we came out for the second period it was going to have to be a 180, to flip the switch, to start playing our brand of hockey.”
He led the way, not just scoring, but hitting. In one, he took down 6-foot-4 Timo Meier, the Swiss captain.
“I think it’s about body position and maybe they don’t expect it coming from a smaller guy,” said Hicketts. “It’s something where if it can lift the team I’m going to try and help them. That hit on Meier on the penalty kill, it gave the boys a little bit of a spark and something to rally behind.
“It’s something that I’m willing to do if it’s there. Obviously I’m not going to go out of my way to make that hit but it’s something that I really try and do.”
Hicketts, a defenceman with the WHL Victoria Royals, was overlooked in the draft last summer, but signed as a free agent with the Detroit Red Wings, who were impressed by his fortitude along with his skill.
So leave it to Hicketts to turn a historic performance by Switzerland into a positive experience for Canada.
“I think (it’s a positive),” said Hicketts. “I think it’s something. We have to prepare to play every game. Nothing’s easy in this tournament. The four returnees especially know that from last year but I think having the whole group go through that at an earlier stage of the tournament is something that going forward is going to be an impact.”
The shootout win means Canada’s spot in the quarter-finals is secure. But the most Canada can get is eight points, needing a regulation win on Thursday over Sweden to get there. That will be Canada’s lowest point total in the preliminary round since the tournament went to the 3-2-1-0 win/overtime win/overtime loss/loss standings in 2006.
“Every team is so close,” said Canadian forward Dylan Strome, who scored Canada’s first goal. “You see in the world juniors five teams in the past five years (have won). It’s no slouch of a tournament. There are no weak teams.”
– This story is updated from an earlier version