With due respect to the other games on tap at the first day of the World Junior Hockey Championships in Helsinki, there's no doubt that Canada - USA was the premier matchup. The two historic rivals boasted arguably the two strongest rosters in the tournament (despite surprising omissions of Jeremy Bracco, Kyle Connor, and Clayton Keller by the US), a claim only bolstered by Sweden losing multiple key contributors in the last few days.
The first period was marked by sloppiness and chippy play. Most notably, OHL superstar Alex DeBrincat (2016) speared Travis Konecny (PHI - 2015) in front of the Canadian bench, resulting in a 5 minute penalty and game misconduct, and robbing the USA of one of their key offensive threats. Brock Boeser (VAN - 2015) moved up from the third line to replace DeBrincat. The Canadians were unable to capitalize on the first period portion of the penalty, with shots being 5-4 for the good guys. The Leafs prospects in this game were relatively quiet in the first. Mitch Marner, on a line with Dylan Strome (ARI - 2015) and John Quenneville (NJD - 2014), had small flashes of brilliance, but little sustained pressure. Travis Dermott had a forgettable period, not standing out to my eyes one way or the other.
The second period began with Canada continuing their power play from the DeBrincat spear. Despite a lot of possession, there were very few shot attempts on the power play (just 4 in the entire 5 minutes), and a lot of perimeter passing. The pace in the second period really increased compared to the first, and the deadlock was broken on a brilliant play by Julien Gauthier (2016). After blocking a shot at the Canada blueline, Gauthier beat a USA defender to the puck and shoveled a backhand pass to linemate Rourke Chartier (SJS - 2014) on a 2-on-1. Chartier was denied by USA goalie Alex Nedeljkovic (CAR - 2014). The puck fell to Gauthier, who passed while on his knees to a trailing Mathew Barzal (NYI - 2015), who made no mistake and put Canada up 1-0. In general, this seemed to be Canada's most dangerous line in the period, with their speed through the neutral zone generating multiple chances. Barzal, in particular, shone to me. His passing and vision is what sets him apart, but he's also an excellent skater and showed he's a capable finisher as well.
After the goal, the USA started to pile on the pressure, including a dominant three or four minute stretch where they hemmed in the Konecny line, forcing multiple icings. In particular, Auston Matthews (2016) and Matthew Tkachuk (2016) were impressive. Matthews' combination of size, speed, and agility is really outstanding - he treated Lawson Crouse (FLA - 2015) like a pylon at one point. It's a shame he's a future Oiler.
The United States eventually equalized through their other big line. Christian Dvorak (ARI - 2014) won an offensive zone faceoff to Sonny Milano (CBJ - 2014), who fired a quick point shot wide. A lively bounce took it in front of the net to Colin White (OTT - 2015), who made no mistake to equalize the game. Shots were 15-14 for Canada at the end of the 2nd, though Canada's shot locations were notably better (TSN had a graphic during the intermission showing 8 Canadian shots in the 'home plate' area, and only 2 for the US).
Once again, the Leafs prospects were quiet. Mitch Marner is expected to be one of the best players on the ice, but was mostly invisible through 2 periods. Strome was noticeably more lively than Marner, forcing multiple turnovers and creating chances with his on-puck strength and anticipation. Travis Dermott didn't do anything wrong, but like Marner, he wasn't doing anything to stand out.
The third period of a tight game like this is where things get really interesting. Both Dermott and Marner were more prominent in this period than the previous two. Dermott made a solid defensive play a few minutes in, clearing a centring pass and bodying an American player off the puck on the same shift. Marner was noticeably more aggressive in this period, using his speed to gain the zone and get defenders to back off him more.
IIHF refs reared their ugly heads in the third, calling an incredibly soft goaltender interference penalty on Canada. The US capitalized, running their power play through Auston Matthews. He set up Zach Werenski (CBJ - 2015) who displayed that beautiful shot of his, wiring it into the back of the net. Canada won the draw to start the play, but was unable to clear the zone.
Shortly after Werenski scored, he was penalized for a very soft slash. Canada's power play went to work, led by the duo of Strome and Marner, both of whom were all over the ice in the third. On multiple occasions, Marner used his skating to draw defenders before firing off a pass to an open shooter. It was this process that led to Canada's tying goal. After receiving a pass from Dermott, Marner entered the zone and attracted USA defenders. He dropped the puck back to Strome, who had all day, and made no mistake.
As the third period progressed, the game became more and more open. Both teams seemed to be able to enter the offensive zone with control at will, and the best players really started to shine given the extra space. Auston Matthews created a brilliant chance when he stole the puck off a Canadian defender on the boards, walked out to the top of the circle, and blazed a puck off the bar. Marner and Strome continued to show signs of breaking the game open, as did Barzal, but ultimately, it was the Americans who would find the critical goal.
A relatively innocuous point shot from Louie Belpiedo (MIN - 2014) was tipped by Joe Hicketts (DET - undrafted), who was trying to knock the puck down in front. In general, I think that's a pretty braindead play, especially when the defender is so close to the goalie, as was the case here. Either get in front of it with your entire body, or let it go, and give your goalie a shot.
Just 41 seconds later, another point shot from the US was tipped in front, leading it to squirt between the legs of Mason McDonald (CGY - 2014). Matthews was there to poke it over the line, getting a deserved goal for his all-around excellent play.
Canada pressured heavily from that point onwards, and had multiple good chances, but Nedeljovic stood tall, and there was simply too little time to come back from the two goal deficit.
As always when Canada loses a game, there will be much hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth. But at the end of the day, a close loss to the US isn't indicative of anything other than the small margin of error Canada has when facing such strong teams. Canada will face Denmark on Monday, while the US will take on the Swedes.
- Marner was quiet early and lost a handful of offensive zone battles after being the first man to the puck — he wasn’t active along the boards and came to a glide. In the third, Marner picked it up and his line with Coyotes prospect Dylan Strome was Canada’s best as they tried to climb back. He had several nice zone entires in the third period, including a nice carry on the Strome goal for the primary assist. A couple creative passes with the extra attacker — found Sens Thomas Chabot cross-ice for a point shot.
- Dermott played well, overall. Nice up-ice pass to Marner for the secondary assist on the Strome goal. Didn't get exposed on any of Team USA's goals and made a few nice zone-exit plays -- especially in the second period. Canada needs to get PP going and Dermott is a factor there. Got exposed on a few loose puck races into the corner where he could have been first man in had he had a little more foot speed but did well to protect the front of the net and keep the play to the outside.