Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Five thoughts on the WJC

I realize many sports fans don’t understand hockey’s World Junior Championship. There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of most of the players. Depending on your level of fandom, it’s possible you’ve never heard of any of the players. It’s a single-elimination tournament in a sport that really needs long series to get any kind of fair outcome, so the odds of the whole thing being won by the legitimately best team are marginal. The very best players in the age group, the ones you’d really want to see in this kind of event, are almost all missing because they’re already in the big leagues. And, of course, these are just kids, so the level of play isn’t exactly pro level, and there are some brutal mismatches.

You know what that sounds a lot like to me? March Madness! You like March Madness, right? Good. Think of the WJC as hockey’s version of March Madness, except instead of everyone’s rooting interests being driven by some tenuous former ties to some school and/or gambling, it’s based on strident nationalism.

You’re onboard with that, right, America? I knew you would be. Here’s the bad news: Team USA went home early, and we’ll get to that in a few sections. But we still wound up with a pretty decent matchup for last night’s gold-medal game, so let’s start there as we run down five key thoughts from the last two weeks of teenage spirit.

1. We got a big rivalry game for the gold …

Canada vs. Russia was international hockey’s original rivalry — the two nations were trying to pulverize each other years before the Miracle on Ice — and it has provided some of the sport’s most memorable moments in the decades since. That’s especially true at the WJC, where Canada and Russia have met for the gold eight times since 1999 (not to mention this infamous debacle back in the Soviet Union days.)

So last night’s gold-medal matchup between Canada and Russia was a worthy one. And it delivered on what we’ve come to expect between the two teams: bad blood, plenty of skill, and an almost unbearably dramatic game.

That last bit seemed like it would get the night off midway through the second period. After Canada jumped out to an early 2-0 lead just a few minutes into the game, Russia fought back to even the flow of play and closed the gap to 2-1 by the end of the first. But Canada took a 5-1 lead on second-period goals by Sam Reinhart, Connor McDavid — more on him in a moment — and Max Domi, shifting the game firmly into blowout territory.

Apparently somebody forgot to translate that memo into Russian, because the visitors stormed back with three goals in a four-minute span to close the gap to 5-4 by the end of the second. It was an admirable comeback from the Russians, and the first real adversity Canada had faced in the tournament. It also brought back memories of the 2011 gold-medal game in Buffalo, played exactly four years ago. That was the final that saw Russia storm back from a 3-0 third-period deficit with five unanswered goals, a loss that still stings Canadian hockey fans.

There’d be no third-period collapse this year, or any third-period goals for that matter. The teams played a furious period with plenty of chances, but Canada held on for the 5-4 win to take home the gold, the country’s first in six years. It was an enormously entertaining game, if you can ignore that anyone with a rooting interest hated every second of it, and put a nice exclamation point on a fun tournament.

2. … but we didn’t get the big rivalry game

While Canada and Russia will always be the old favorite, there’s no better international hockey rivalry right now than Canada vs. Team USA. And that’s especially true at the junior level, where the American program has very nearly caught up with its northern neighbors, winning gold in 2010 and 2013. Games between the two countries tend to be emotional affairs, as the two sides don’t seem to like each other very much.

We did get a Canada/USA matchup to close out the round-robin, with Team Canada earning an entertaining 5-3 win on New Year’s Eve. But there would be no rematch in the elimination round, with the Americans dropping a 3-2 decision to the Russians after drawing a tough matchup in the quarterfinals. That loss sent Team USA home without a medal for the second straight year.

So has the American development program taken a step back? Hardly. While it’s always disappointing to go home empty-handed, the WJC format basically ensures that at least one top team will be out early. That American loss to Canada dropped them down to second place in their group and led to a tough matchup with the Russians, and an undisciplined effort combined with running into a hot goaltender spelled doom.

The loss hurts, but in the big picture the Americans are on the right track. They came into this year’s tournament as one of the favorites and will head into next year’s event the same way. Other than Canada, no nation is producing as much high-end offensive talent as the Americans are these days. Assuming they don’t panic based on a few years of tough matchups and bad luck, they’ll be just fine.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

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