Saturday, January 05, 2008

Winning the games that need to be won

There’s nothing like matching up with your best rival to bring out your best game, and on Friday Team Canada discovered its most impressive game thus far at the World Juniors, as they took on a hard working American squad.

A Canada USA game seems to define the concept of intensity in hockey these days, especially when there is something of value on the line. Friday’s semi final provided a fitting stage for the North American teams as they put forward sixty minutes of the North American style of the game.

The Americans came out flying to open the first ten minutes of play, looking every bit ready to send the Canadians off to the bronze medal game, they controlled the play in that first ten minutes, fast breaks out of their own end, fierce body checks and had more than a few chances to set Canada back on its heels.

While the Canadians regained some of their equilibrium, Steve Mason held down the fort holding off the American attack, cutting down scoring angles, refusing to give up much in the way of a rebound and most importantly, denying the Americans access to the twine behind that red goal line.

For Mason it was solid performance under perhaps the most trying of times for a young goal keeper, more than aware that the decision to name him as the starter for the semi final had unleashed some of the most intense second guessing in Canadian junior history. And just in case there wasn’t enough on his plate on Friday, he learned just before game time that his junior team London had traded him to Kitchener, an unusual announcement from the OHL at a most unusual time. Regardless, he seemed to thrive on the pressure, putting in a stellar game as he held off the Americans when they were at their frantic best.

As Canada got back onto its game, you could sense the momentum beginning to move ever so slightly in their direction. A cause that was helped out by some sloppy play by the US and penalties that should never happen in a game with so much on the line. Surprisingly the Americans were called twice for too many men on the ice, indicative of a few of the mental breakdowns that they suffered as the game became more intense and they began to fall behind.

The Americans and Canadians were scoreless through the first twenty minutes of play, but the second proved to be the Achilles heel for the USA, as Canada stormed their end of the rink and began to fill their net with pucks. By the time the Canadian onslaught had ended, they had a four to nothing lead and while the Americans wouldn’t give up, and you could sense that it was a hill that they weren’t going to be able to skate up over.

Mason’s shut out came to an end late in the third as the Americans gained one goal back, but time quickly ran out on any attempt at a comeback and before they knew it, 4-1 was posted as the final score and they were listening to the strains of O Canada, probably a song that won’t be on their iPods anytime soon, if ever.

For Canada, it was simply a matter of playing their best, when their best was needed. Seemingly able to put aside all the baggage of the last few days of the streaks, the past gold medals and the past domination of this tournament that they were constantly bombarded with. They managed to ignore all the second guessing and focused on the job that was at hand, that of matching their American rivals shift for shift, shot for shot and as it turned out more than goal for goal.

They now can turn their attention to a new rival, Sweden who provided Team Canada with a wake up call a few days ago when they came from behind to take advantage of Canadian mistakes and a third period melt down to take away what many considered a shocking victory.

There were lessons to be learned from that game and judging by the Canadian play against first the Finns and then the Americans, they have picked up the pace and made their corrections.

The final exam however comes up on Saturday, if they can continue on with the effort and approach that they brought to the semi final on Friday, then Saturday’s gold medal game should provide for a very different outcome than that of a few days ago. While at the same time they could very well provide the same outcome that has happened at the last three World Championships.

When sixty minutes is up (maybe a few more if really necessary) on Saturday, there’s a very good chance that there will be one more chorus of O Canada to be heard before they bid farewell to the Czech Republic.

Globe and Mail--Canadians going for gold
CBC Sports--Canadian Juniors going for 4th straight gold

No comments: