On Sunday evening, hockey fans across Canada watched as their beloved Canadian National Junior Team narrowly escaped the middle-of-the-pack Slovaks by a score of just 3-1 – including an empty-net marker.
Forget the 16-2 thrashing that the Canadians lay on the shorthanded Germans Saturday evening, as the focus in Canada has certainly shifted to the team’s inability to perform against a full roster. Following an early first period strike by Jordan Spence (who made his WJHC debut Sunday), Canada failed to put up another goal, or even a high-quality scoring chance until the final minutes of the third period.
With Dylan Holloway out of the lineup and Braden Schneider sitting out following his one-game suspension for an illegal check to the head on Saturday, Spence drew into the lineup on the blueline and scored the game’s opening goal on a one-time rebound just 4:08 in. Despite putting up 44 shots on net Saturday, Canada only amassed 24 total shots Sunday, with its highest total (nine) coming in the first period.
“It was unfortunate for Schneider with the suspension today, but Mitch Love the assistant coach called me and said I was in, so obviously I was excited to play in my first game,” Spence said post-game. “When I went out for my first shift, there was a loose puck in front of the net, and I just buried it. It was a surreal moment.”
Both teams entered the game 1-0-0, with Slovakia coming off a narrow 1-0 victory over fellow Group A member Switzerland on Christmas Day. With eight returnees from the 2020 Slovakian WJHC team, and one player from the 2019 team, Slovakia held off a high-powered Canadian offence, only giving up a late third period tally to Phil Tomasino, who potted his third of the tournament on a long breakaway pass from Dylan Cozens, putting Canada up 2-0 with 3:35 to play.
With an obvious attention to Canada’s weaknesses on Saturday, the Slovaks managed to capitalize on a late third-period, empty-net powerplay marker. With Dawson Mercer in the penalty box for hooking, Slovakia made it a one-goal game once again. Martin Chromiak used Canadian defenceman Justin Barron as a perfect screen and fired a wrist shot high, glove side past Devon Levi with 1:24 to go.
However, the Canadians got some insurance with 30 seconds left in the game, as Jack Quinn picked up a bobbled pass at his defensive blueline and skated the length of the ice before putting the puck into the empty net, sealing the victory, 3-1 for Canada.
Canada’s sloppy puck control, low shots-for total, poor offensive acumen and disappointing power play certainly provides head coach Andre Tourigny with much to address heading into Tuesday’s contest with Switzerland. Luckily, the team will get Brandon Wheat Kings’ Defenceman Braden Schneider back on Tuesday after the 19-year-old fulfilled his suspension Sunday.
Sunday’s showing was night and day from the Boxing Day smash fest over Germany in nearly every regard. Canada’s power play operated at 67 percent on Saturday, while only managing one total shot on two opportunities Sunday. The pace of Sunday’s game was much slower, despite the opponent lacing a full roster (compared to that of the 14-man German squad).
Birthday boy Devon Levi helped Canada to the victory, turning aside 17 of 18 pucks directed his way, and improved his record to 2-0-0 through two starts. German netminder Samuel Hlavaj stopped 21 of 23 shots that he faced in his 2021 WJHC debut, including a nifty between-the-legs partial break by Connor McMichael off a Cole Perfetti setup pass.
The Winnipeg Jets’ 2020 first round draft pick Perfetti – alongside his first-line running mates McMichael and Peyton Krebs – received a significant amount of third-period offensive zone icetime in the later stages of the game as Canada searched for a spark.
The Canadian team will now have a day off before hitting the ice once again in Edmonton for the team’s third game of the preliminary round, set for 5:00 PM against Switzerland. The game can be seen live on TSN in Canada and the NHL Network in the United States.