Lacrosse attempts a symptom of larger issue for Team Canada
TSN SportsCentre Reporter Mark Masters reports on the 2023 IIHF World Junior Championship, running Dec. 26-Jan. 5 in Halifax, N.S, and Moncton, N.B. Team Canada held a video session at their hotel in Halifax on Tuesday.
Michigan Wolverines freshman Adam Fantilli and Regina Pats captain Connor Bedard each attempted to score lacrosse-style goals early in Monday's game against Czechia.
"We're not going to 'Michigan' our way to the finals," said Arizona Coyotes winger Dylan Guenther referring to the birthplace of the move. "We're trying it a lot. It's a skilled play, I get it, but I think that's how our game's going right now. We're trying to skill our way through it. We're trying to toe-drag and beat guys 1-on-1 and to win you have to play the right way, play together and play as a team."
"We have a lot of creative players," said Los Angeles Kings defenceman Brandt Clarke. "We have a lot of guys with high skill, but in the first 10 minutes of the game, first period of the game, we were thinking, 'Hey, let's get a cute one here. Let's make the crowd happy.' But that's not how you win hockey games."
Czechia shocked the sellout crowd by beating Canada 5-2 in the opening game for both teams.
Bedard and Fantilli have both scored on the lacrosse move before. Bedard did it in spring hockey while Fantilli executed it in the USHL.
"Once it's up on my stick, I'm pretty confident that I can be able to direct the puck wherever," Fantilli said. "I did pull it off once so I do have a little bit of confidence that I can do it again ... You've seen [Trevor] Zegras, he's scored on it what, three, four times in the NHL, so it could be a good scoring chance, but sometimes you got to know when to curl back and make the right play."
Fantilli had the puck knocked off his stick by defenceman David Spacek before he could put it on net on Monday.
"There's a time and a place to use the 'Michigan' move," said Kamloops Blazers centre Logan Stankoven, who has never attempted it in a game. "When you need a goal or when the game is tight like that maybe it's not the time to use that move. But, at the end of the day, guys want to showcase their skill and I'm fine with that."
Guenther scored a lacrosse goal when he played for the Edmonton Oil Kings in the Western Hockey League.
"It's not something you'll score every game with," the 19-year-old from Edmonton said. "I mean, that happens once a year, maybe."
Canada's Kent Johnson electrified Edmonton with a lacrosse goal against Czechia at the August World Juniors. That goal came in Canada's third game and against Tomas Suchanek, who promised to be ready for the next attempt. And, sure enough, the Tri-City Americans goalie was in good position to deny Bedard on Monday.
"Goalies are getting really good these days at using their head to fill that space," said Seattle Thunderbirds goalie Thomas Milic. "It's a low-percentage play that doesn't need to be performed too often."
"There's a time and place for everything," said coach Dennis Williams. "I would have liked to have seen us do a better job of getting to the paint, getting to the tough areas and focusing more on the way we want to play. It's a team game out there."
One of Canada's slogans in Halifax is, "No me, All we." They have those words posted outside the dressing room.
"We played too much as individuals at times out there," said Williams. "Too many guys were not really playing connected or playing fast and then we're trying to beat three, four guys at a time."
There's a lot of hype surrounding this Team Canada, which includes three NHL players, eight returnees from the summer team that won gold and the top two projected picks in the next draft in Bedard and Fantilli.
"Maybe we came in a little too confident and didn't respect our opponent enough," said Stankoven.
"Guys were, I think, taking them too lightly," said Milic. "We just need to dial in some details and re-establish our foundation as a team."
Guenther, who played 21 games with the Coyotes this season, feels like Canada didn't have a businesslike approach.
"There's a difference between being loose and having fun and being ready to go," said Guenther, who played two World Junior games in December before the event was cancelled due to COVID. "I think we were on the loose side yesterday."
"It was a little loose in the dressing room before," Clarke confirmed. "We were all excited. We wanted to put on a show for this crowd and maybe that got us away from what we were intending to do."
Team Canada didn't plan to skate on Tuesday and the surprising setback against Czechia didn't change the schedule.
"We'd been on the ice since our last pre-comp game," Williams explained. "We had those two practices [Saturday and Sunday] and then the game yesterday. We'd already made that decision that today would be our rest day."
There was a video session, however, to sort through Monday's mistakes.
"A hard reset," Williams called it. "We did a little video this morning showing some of the chances against and our miscommunications and so forth that are all controllable. We could have probably helped ourselves on those goals and chances against if we just cleaned up a little bit of the curling out there and [had] better sticks and a little better talk."
"It's a learning curve," said Peterborough Petes winger Brennan Othmann. "Coach Willy said, 'You win or you learn,' and obviously this is learning."
The players had the afternoon off.
"We went over a lot of the details of last night's game knowing when that meeting is done that that game is done with and now we have to move forward and focus on our next challenge," Williams said. "I wanted them to get away from everything today and just enjoy some family time and check out [from] a mental standpoint and physical standpoint and be back tonight for a good team dinner and refocus."
Williams said there will be line changes coming at Wednesday's skate. The coach hasn't tinkered with his top nine since Day 1 of training camp.
This is the first time Canada has lost its first game when the World Juniors have been played in Canada.
"It doesn't define us," Williams stressed. "This could be the best thing that happens for our group to understand that we just don't just put on our skates and win hockey games."
Canada will not hold a full morning skate on Wednesday.
Stankoven was held without a shot for the first time in his World Junior career.
"We got to have a mix of guys that can play hard and go to the net and myself included," the reigning Canadian Hockey League player of the year said. "I wasn't able to do that last night. We got to battle harder. It can't just be all skill. We got to learn how to make hard plays and go to the net."
Canada's second line with Stankoven between Fantilli and Guenther was on the ice for two of three goals against in 5-on-5 play.
Stankoven also got off to a slow start at the summer World Juniors in Edmonton where he was held without a point against Latvia in the opening game.
"It just makes me hungrier as a player," he said. "When things aren't going my way and I'm not producing, I'm not a guy that shies away from the game. I like to get in there and play harder. It sets a fire in my belly to go out there and prove people wrong."
A turning point in Monday's game came early in the second period when Gatineau Olympiques forward Zach Dean was assessed a match penalty for an illegal check to the head or neck of Ales Cech. Czechia scored twice on the ensuing five minute power play.
"I was surprised," said Canada's captain Shane Wright. "We watched the replay about five times and it looked like his hands hit his chest and his head snapped back … Not sure about that one, but it is what it is."
"It was just a hard play," said Stankoven. "Deaner's going in to make a hit there and I thought his hands didn't come up too high. Maybe it's a minor, but I didn't really consider it to be a major."
Playing physical is a big part of Canada's identity, but it can be a tough line to walk in the international game.
"We want to be physical and make hard plays and kind of intimidate our opponents but at the same time you have to watch your hands," Stankoven noted. "International hockey, you know penalties will be called more."
"Sometimes it gets in the back of your head," admitted Fantilli, "and sometimes it changes the amount of physicality there is. They're trying to do the best they can to protect the players, but at a certain point it's hockey, it's a contact sport. We have the biggest team in the tournament and we're going to use that to our advantage."
But it wasn't just the major call. Canada also took five minors, which made it tough to build momentum.
"We took way too many penalties," Williams said. "A lot of stick penalties. Three trippings and two slashings and then the five minutes. You're not going to win a lot of games against good teams in this tournament when you give them that many power plays."
Milic stopped all 10 shots he faced after relieving Sarnia Sting goalie Ben Gaudreau midway through the game.
"That's a tough situation for anyone to go in cold like that," Milic said. "In these short-term competitions it's crucial for everyone to be ready to go at any time so before games, whether I'm starting or not, my preparation stays the same and it showed yesterday."
Things got off to an ominous start, though, as Milic actually lost an edge while doing a quick warm-up.
"That was a great way to come in," he said with a chuckle. "The camera is right in my face too. I had a good laugh about it. It might've helped, honestly, ease the tension a little bit."
Milic will make his first career World Junior start on Wednesday against Germany.
"I'm super excited," he said. "It's something I've been looking forward to for a while now ... I'm going to war with the guy at the other end of the ice and our team is going to war with their team."
Milic believes his game is in the best place it's ever been.
"You can really tell he's been dialling it in the last month or so," said Thunderbirds coach Matt O'Dette. "The first month of the season, the team wasn't playing great in front of him. We have a young defence core. He was faced with high-quality chances, but we've cleaned up some of that defensively and you can see Thomas dialling in his game as it's gone on."
Milic stopped 150 of 156 shots (.961 save percentage) in his last six WHL games before leaving for Canada's camp.
"He's got no real weakness," said O'Dette. "He's athletic. He's technically sound. He's got a really good mental make-up. He's a big-game goalie as we found out last year. That was his first opportunity to play big playoff games and he rose to that opportunity."
Milic posted a .925 save percentage in 25 playoff games last spring as the Thunderbirds advanced to the WHL championship series.
"He's a big-game goaltender and that's when you see his best," said O'Dette. "You do see his focus sharpen in practice and meetings. He does take it up a notch. I think he gets motivated when he sees really good goaltenders across the way from him. He wants to outplay them and win that match-up and that was the case in the playoffs last year. First round it was Talyn Boyko, who's a drafted goalie. Second round it was Taylor Gauthier, who was a signed goalie. Third round, Dylan Garand, drafted goalie. So, I think that gives him extra motivation being an undrafted guy."
Milic feels ready for the World Junior spotlight, but what about his parents?
"My mom gets pretty tense during games," he said with a laugh. "They were doing a little thing yesterday where they identify the parents to show on the broadcast and my mom was freaking out because they're going to get her reactions during the game. So, hopefully she keeps it cool. I have confidence in her, but you never know. She gets pretty tense sometimes."
Gaudreau gave up five goals on 17 shots before being pulled.
"We left him out to dry on a couple of those so I wouldn't put the game on Benny's shoulders by any means," said Williams. "We have to do a better job of defending and staying out of the penalty box and giving him a chance as well."
Germany fell 1-0 to Sweden in their opener on Tuesday.
"We played a good game," said coach Tobias Abstreiter. "It was the best first game that we played in the last couple of years. We had a chance to win the game and that says everything about the performance."
The fans in Halifax appreciated the effort and rallied behind the underdogs.
"It kind of felt like we were Canada there for a second with the amount cheers we had," said smiling forward Ryan Del Monte. "It's definitely a boost, especially in the third period there. Guys were tired and to have the crowd behind us, it's pretty inspiring."
"It was really a very good feeling," said Abstreiter, "and this says everything about the performance when you get the crowd, all the sudden at the end of the game, behind you. Our players deserved that support."
They won't have it on Wednesday.
"Canada lost the first game and they have a little bit of a bad feeling in their stomach and we have to be ready for that," Abstreiter said.
"We know they'll come in hungry," said Del Monte, who plays for the London Knights. "They're going to have something to prove. We know they'll come even harder so we have to prepare for that."
Abstreiter was undecided about whether Nikita Quapp will start on consecutive days. The Carolina Hurricanes prospect was excellent against Sweden stopping 43 of 44 shots.