OSTRAVA, Czech Republic — Team Canada’s road to gold at the World Junior Championship took a dark turn on Saturday night.
Canada’s brightest young star, Alexis Lafreniere, left the game in the second period with a left knee injury, adding injury to insult in a 6-0 shellacking at the hands of Team Russia.
The lopsided defeat, coupled with the feared injury to the 2020 projected No. 1 overall NHL pick, placed it among the worst losses in Team Canada’s 43-year history at the World Junior Championship.
It may not have had the same significance as Canada’s blown third-period lead to Russia in the 2011 gold medal game in Buffalo, or the 6-3 loss to Kazahkstan in 1998 when Canada was gunning for a sixth straight gold medal - but it was statistically and perhaps circumstantially the worst.
Because Team Canada just doesn’t get blown out at the World Juniors.
It was the first time Canada ever lost by six or more goals at the tournament - and the first time Canada was shut out this century, the last time being a scoreless tie on Dec. 27, 1998 against Slovakia.
Team Canada players, with the coaching staff included, aired their grievances in a meeting following the loss.
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“There’s definitely a wake-up call needed,” captain Barrett Hayton said. “A lot of guys can look in the mirror and you know that you weren’t good enough tonight. We’re all extremely disappointed in ourselves. We all have to be better … they outworked us, they were better in all facets.
“We’re definitely embarrassed with the performance.”
Frustration nearly boiled over on the ice postgame, with Russian captain Grigori Denisenko skating to centre ice pointing at Hayton. He was upset that Hayton showed a sign of disrespect, being the only Canadian to leave his helmet on during the playing of Russia’s national anthem.
“It was just something the whole team didn’t like,” Denisenko said through a translator, declining to say more.
Hayton later issued an apology through Hockey Canada, saying his actions were “not intended to be disrespectful.”
“My mistake should not detract from their win,” Hayton said. “I owe it to my team and all Canadians to be better.”
Those tensions would certainly add a little flavour should Canada and Russia clash again. That is a definite possibility now since Canada’s loss blew the doors wide open in Group B, putting all five teams back on level ground with equal 1-1 records.
Team Canada had a change to put Group B in a stranglehold. Instead, this is the first time that all five teams in the same group have opened 1-1 since the tournament evolved to the current round-robin format in 1996.
“Honestly, it’s not a game you want to lose,” Ty Smith said. “It’s a tough one for our group, but at the same time, we have to try to see this as an opportunity to learn as a group and come back stronger for the next game.”
Team Canada will face Germany in Game 3 on Monday (8:30 a.m. on TSN 1/4/5).
But on this night, Team Canada’s sixth loss to Russia in their last nine World Junior meetings, Canada was simply run over by a Big Red Machine desperate to avoid a 0-2 start to the tournament.
The onslaught was fast and furious with six different Russians filling the net over the first 36 minutes. Russia’s first strike came less than two minutes into the contest, a shot that bounced up into air off Nico Daws, over him and into the net - setting the tone for an ugly night.
“I mean, we just weren’t ready from the start of the game,” Joe Veleno said. “They came out hungrier than us, they competed harder and they won more battles.”
Defenceman Ty Dellandrea said Team Canada “had no pushback.”
“We’re frustrated,” Smith said. “We need to show more compete and more pride for our team and our country, for each other.”
Daws barely lasted two minutes into the second period before coach Dale Hunter replaced him with Joel Hofer.
Daws allowed four goals on 18 shots - giving him an unsightly .840 save percentage over his first five periods and change on the international stage - leaving a significant question for coach Dale Hunter to answer in net for Canada’s starter against the Germans.
“I had to get him out eventually, it wasn’t his fault,” Hunter said, adding that he hadn’t given any thought to the next game’s starter. “It wasn’t the goaltending, it was more we just weren’t in the structure in our defence.”
The loss aside, Lafreniere’s injury was the talk of the tournament post-game in Ostrava. Doctors continued to examine the MRI on Lafreniere’s left knee, but the initial glimpse seemed to indicate a sigh of relief for Hockey Canada.
The initial prognosis was that Lafreniere’s injury was not as bad as originally feared and that he may even have a chance to return to play in the tournament.
Lafreniere left Saturday’s contest early in the second period after a collision with goaltender Amir Miftakhov on a take to the net.
Lafreniere, 18, writhed on the ice in considerable pain while clutching his left knee. He needed to be helped to the dressing room by teammates and did not appear to put any weight on his left leg on the way off.
Lafreniere was the star of Team Canada’s thrilling 6-4 win over Team USA to start the tournament, collecting one goal and three assists, including a game-saving response seven seconds after Canada blew a two-goal lead in the third period.
Now, depending on the official diagnosis of Lafreniere’s injury, his potential return might provide a much-needed silver lining for Team Canada on a night where there was so little.
Contact Frank Seravalli on Twitter: @frank_seravalli