The goaltending wasn’t good. Nobody could score. The chemistry? Non-existent.
The first few games were a disaster for Team Canada at the World Championship. A shutout loss to Latvia. A blowout against the Americans. Another loss against Germany. With zero points in the first three games – marking the team’s worst start in tournament history – Canada needed another 10 to secure a spot in the playoffs, meaning at least three wins and an overtime loss to move on in an attempt to make the final for the fifth time in six tournaments.
They did just that. But it was, so, so close. Canada needed the final game of the round-robin between Germany and Latvia to finish in 60 minutes to advance. That’s not what Team Canada is used to, but it worked out, even if it wasn’t pretty.
That’s a stark contrast to Finland’s road. They’ve been among the top dogs all tournament long, battling with the United States for the top spot in Group B play. The 1-0 win against the Czech Republic in the quarter-final was a little too close for comfort, but the defending champs eventually did what it takes and moved on to the finals.
Canada is always a favorite to win in international play. They’re the top team in the IIHF rankings and with a tournament-leading 17 full-time NHLers in the lineup, Canada was expected to go all the way. But the chemistry was clearly lacking early on, with Canada changing lines at a consistent pace to try and figure things out. Coach Gerard Gallant said after the opening game that he was happy with his team’s performance because they had just three practices and no pre-tournament games to sort things out.
Most of the European teams had already participated in an international tournament leading up to the World Championship, even if the full team wasn’t ready to go. Canada had to get things moving quickly, and, unfortunately, despite outplaying Latvia and Germany, they couldn’t take them down.
But since then, it’s been a different Team Canada. Things weren’t necessarily easy against Norway or Kazakhstan, but you can tell the team was starting to click. The real Team Canada has arrived after barely nudging its way in to the important stages of the tournament.
“We had two and a half practices. We had to play a game right away,” coach Gerard Gallant said on Saturday. “Our team started to know each other and feel each other out a bit more. After the third game, we played really good hockey. The guys are coming together really well and they’re proud.”
“There’s a lot of new faces, we didn’t play with each other before,” forward Nick Paul said. “We’re using that as an excuse but the more we practiced together, the more we got to read off each other and build chemistry. I think we started building as a group.”
The addition of Andrew Mangiapane has been so important for Canada. With two goals on Saturday, Mangiapane improved to seven goals and 11 points in six games after missing the first three games of the tournament. He has been Canada’s MVP by all counts, and while he didn’t play all the games, he should earn serious award consideration on championship Sunday.
“He’s a difference-maker, there’s no doubt,” Gallant said about Mangiapane. “When he got here, we added him to the first line and he scored a lot of big goals for us. He has played great outstanding hockey for us, he’s a good character kid.”
His chemistry with Connor Brown and Adam Henrique has made the line one of the best in the tournament. Canada has 25 goals in this tournament, and the trio has combined for 14 of them. If it wasn’t for this group, a playoff spot wouldn’t have been possible.
Darcy Kuemper was criticized for not looking comfortable in early games for Canada. While he didn’t allow too many goals, there were more than a few weak ones along the way that hampered the team. But with big outings in his past three games, including a 36-save effort against the United States, he has finally found his form in a bid to make Canada’s Olympic team next winter.
An ugly start to the tournament meant Canada had to play catch-up the rest of the way. And while there were big positives to be taken out of the first few games, Canada clearly was not playing up to its potential. Now that the team is flying at full speed, it’s going to be tough to take that momentum away. But this is more wh
“I think you can notice from the first three games how much more comfortable the guys are on the ice,” Justin Danforth said. “For just being together for three weeks here, we’re a pretty close group already so I think that that plays a huge role in our success right now.”
Coming together in a short span is always a challenge. Mix in having to live life in a bubble and not experience the local culture in Riga and it’s even more challenging. But as Paul says, being in the bubble has helped get the team up to speed together as a unit, especially with many players meeting for the very first time.
“There’s not one guy that feels excluded,” Paul said. “Everyone’s together, everyone’s having fun, everyone’s connecting. I think the bubble does play a part and coming together closer because we’re with each other almost 24/7.”
The biggest challenge is still ahead on Sunday, with Canada playing the winner of Germany vs. Finland in the gold medal. Canada’s lineup is entirely different from the one that lost to Finland back at the 2019 World Championship when the Finns had no full-time NHLers. But Canada, seen as the underdog all playoff long as the fourth seed that barely squeaked in, hasn’t been too bothered when it matters most.
Canada is finally playing the hockey expected of them, and with a medal on the line, you know exactly what they’re looking to do.