Canada’s group-stage excellence continues, but real tests loom

EDMONTON — The Hockey Gods were not kind to Team Canada during its Red Deer training camp, when COVID-19 struck and the quarantine robbed them of four planned games against university competition. Then the pre-tournament games were pared down from two to one, and all of a sudden the World Juniors began and Canada was still rusty.

Very rusty.

But the cavalry arrived in the form of last year’s gold medal, which put Canada in the weaker Group A and opened their 2021 tournament with games against Germany, Slovakia and Switzerland.

The result: an aggregate score of 29-3 and just 42 shots on goal allowed. Their in-tournament pre-tournament games closed with a 10-0 win over Switzerland on Tuesday night. Canada outshot the Swiss 42-15, led by period scores of 1-0, 5-0 and 10-0, and generally did whatever they wanted against the Swiss, as you might expect when a team with 19 first-round draft picks plays an opponent with zero of the same.

So, with Finland up on Thursday in the final game of the group stage for both teams — and a chance to pay the fourth place team from Group B in a quarter-final game — let’s look at where Team Canada is now that they’ve finished the in-tournament pre-tournament games.

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Learning Curve

Can you really learn anything about your team in three games where the scores are 16-2, 3-1 and 10-0? Head coach Andre Tourigny says you can.

“A lot happened in that game. It doesn’t look like it, but…” began the Canadian head coach.

Tourigny observed an up-and-down night where his team played well at times, lost their focus, and then regained the mission and ended the night with their game at the high level the coach demands.

“I’m happy about the way our team grew during that game,” he said. “The way we bounced back after a tough second half of the first period. The way our powerplay responded after the first two powerplays. The way we bounced back after getting loose a little bit.

“That was a really good game for us to learn about ourselves. To get on the same page.”

Still, the adversity has been so scant — a few minutes against the Slovaks — that it is impossible to know how Team Canada will react when it finally gets some pushback from a good team. And with an average of 14 shots a night, how could you possibly know how starter Devon Levi will react to some serious zone time against a Sweden or a Russia?

What has Tourigny learned through these three games, as lopsided as the aggregate totals have been?

“We have more chemistry. We have less hesitation in our game. We have more structure, more confidence,” he said. “We know more who we are: a hard forechecking team that has the ability to counterattack really quickly. We have big bodies who can get on the forecheck and create a lot of turnovers. Our ‘D’ skates really well — they can kill plays in the neutral zone.

“So, we know better who we are than a week ago.”

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Swiss Bliss

Mike Tyson said it best: “Everyone has a plan, until they get punched in the mouth.”

And so the Swiss game plan melted sometime after the first intermission, like a Toblerone in the hot sun.

“It was a tough game. We had to play simple. Stick to the plan,” said Swiss captain Simon Knak.

Switzerland hung around, down 1-0 after 20 minutes. Alas, there were still 40 to be played, and Canada was just far too superior for the Swiss to hold them back.

“We needed to play pretty simple. Good defensively. Make easy plays. Pressure their defence. Finish the hits,” said assistant captain Joel Salzgeber. “At the start we did that … the first period wasn’t bad. But the last periods, we didn’t stand up and show some character.

“That was a big problem in this game.”

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The Q Train Arrives

If big Quinton Byfield was less than noticeable at the team’s training camp, as folks who were in Red Deer would attest, then those same eyes were popping out of some heads on Tuesday. Against a bunch of smaller Swiss players, the six-foot-four Byfield looked like Milan Lucic in a bantam game, skating untouched to the net on a six-point night, notching two goals and four assists.

Byfield had played the entire World Juniors a year ago without scoring a goal. Now, he’s rising up through the ranks of the forwards just as Canada begins to play games that matter.

“Definitely a big relief,” he said of his first goal. “Not getting a goal last year definitely hurt a little bit, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. We still came out with a gold medal.”

As a returning veteran, people expected Byfield to dominate from the first shift of camp. He did not, but the way he’s playing now, who cares?

“Not playing hockey for eight or nine months, I had to ease myself back into it almost. I finally found my footing … and everything just kind of happened tonight,” the L.A. Kings draft pick said. “Me and Pelts (Flames draft pick Jakob Pelletier) had some good connection on some goals, and we just got some bounces tonight.”

Tourigny loves the player, and has defended him all through the early games where Byfield was less noticeable. The coach sees something here — perhaps the same things that had the Kings pick him No. 2 overall last summer.

“He’s really coachable. He pays attention to the coaching. He wants to do what’s right,” Tourigny said. “In Red Deer I told all the returning players that I will be hard on them; I will demand more from them than any other (players). Right from the first practice I was on Q, demanding a lot, and he responded really well. He pays attention. We asked him to manage the puck in a different way, we ask him (to make) some adjustments on the defensive side of the puck, and he did it. He is a more mature man than last year. Receptive to coaching … even if he is the youngest guy on the team.”