Behind balanced scoring and a brilliant performance from netminder Kevin Poulin, Canada narrowly avoided the play-in round on its own terms with a 4-0 victory over South Korea in the final matchup of the preliminary slate at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang.
Having failed to secure top spot in Group A, Canada required the four-goal spread to advance through to a guaranteed spot in the quarterfinals, but would have avoided the extra knockout game anyway by virtue of Sweden’s 3-1 win over Finland.
We have a stronger sense, now, about how this Canadian entry stacks up after coming into the competition somewhat blind.
Here’s what working, and what’s not, as we brace for what’s expected to be a matchup with Finland in the quarters.
Rene’s hot start
If Canada’s games are the only ones you can manage to crawl out of bed for, you might be working under the assumption that Rene Bourque is the most dominant offensive player at the Olympic tournament. This, however, is far from the case. Eeli Tolvanen, a first-round draft pick of the Nashville Predators, has largely outshone the field with three goals and six points for Finland, while Russia, as expected, has several elite talents to choose from including the tournament’s co-leaders in goal scoring, Ilya Kovalchuk and Kirill Kaprizov.
But Bourque is, pretty clearly, the Canadian forward best equipped to score with regularity in the tournament as a dominant net-front presence on a top line that includes a pair of others with fairly significant NHL credentials, Derek Roy and Gilbert Brule.
Bourque put the next chapter of his life – full-time dad – on hold to chase the Olympic dream. That’s proven critical so far for Canada with his team-leading three goals.
There’s just one blemish on the goaltending record for Canada through three games; Ben Scrivens’ error on the opening goal versus the Czech Republic is the only real knock on a tandem that has exceeded lofty expectations through the preliminary round.
With his 19-save shutout versus South Korea – the performance much more telling than a cursory look at the boxscore – backup Kevin Poulin has given the Hockey Canada brass plenty to think about. Though it’s not as if Scrivens has done anything to warrant relegation to the bench with just three goals allowed in two starts.
The value of three forwards lauded for their ability to drive opposing defenders through the glass is highly contentious, especially in a short tournament. But through three games, at least, the trio of Eric O’Dell, Max Lapierre and Rob Klinkhammer have had a positive impact for Willie Desjardins.
Canada’s fourth line has created problems for the opposition with its speed and physicality. And against the Koreans, it shook the team out of a lull with an important second goal from O’Dell before Lapierre added to it in the third.
Though if Canada’s scoring problems continue, this unit will quickly come under the microscope.
Need more punch
The biggest fear heading into this tournament was that Canada would not have enough firepower to outscore the competition. Scoring 11 goals in three games sounds fine, but surely hasn’t quelled those concerns.
In the final 45 minutes versus the Czechs, and in what will best resemble the knockout portion of the competition, Canada failed to sustain a meaningful pressure and ultimately score, which wound up costing them the group.
Canada needs more from middle-six players chosen to this team for their goal-scoring ability. Linden Vey and Brandon Kozun – two dominant scorers from the KHL ranks – have yet to make an impact.
For those limited to hockey from North American rinks, there’s something deceptive about watching a power play unfold on international ice. How much room these speciality units have to set up, and the space with which they can use to thwart defensive pressure and maintain possession, gives these man advantages the look of ones perhaps far more potent.
Because, if not utilized effectively by the attacking team, all that extra space really does is take the point of attack further away from the net, and also encourages offensive-minded penalty killers to counter with the runway they have in neutral ice.
All this to say, this is more of an adjustment for the viewer as opposed to the players, who are used to defending more space in odd-man situations, of course, with their European club teams. And with just a single power-play goal allowed in eight opportunities, it’s hard to argue with the results so far.
But the numbers, too, seem deceptive. Simply put, the Canadians are giving up way too many high-quality chances while working down a man, including several ten-bell opportunities to the Koreans. The reason it hasn’t cost them yet is that they haven’t met a team with elite offensive players that can take full advantage of that space.
Lapierre finished with an impressive 4-for-9 success rate in the shootout in his NHL career. We’re still not sure that justifies sending him over the boards first in the skills competition versus the Czechs.
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