Saturday, 29 December 2018

Game Of The Tourney?

I was out tonight enjoying the company of some good friends, and the establishment that hosted our celebrating featured the Canada-Czech game from the 2019 World Junior Championship. We were having more fun that watching the game, but I don't think any of us really felt that the Czechs presented much of a threat to Canada, especially after the Canadian squad had been called out by head coach Tim Hunter yesterday and earlier in the day. When the final horn sounded, Canada skated to a 5-1 victory and all was right in the world.

I need to confess something here: I'm a bad Canada fan. During a discussion with a couple of co-workers prior to the Christmas break, I admitted that I care not for the World Junior Championship preliminary games until the New Year's Eve game for Canada when the Canadians usually face their stiffest test from a rival like the USA, Russia, or Sweden. As with this tournament, Canada started with weaker teams as a tune up for Russia which will happen Monday night.

Where I may be mistaken in my approach is that the other pool of teams has had a couple of incredible games featuring Sweden, Finland, and the US, and tonight's game between Sweden and the USA might rank as the best game of the tournament.

The first two periods-and-a-bit drew nothing but yawns from the group of us watching from our table as Sweden jumped out to a 4-0 lead through 43 minutes. The Tre Kronor appeared to be firmly in control of this game while the Americans may be looking ahead to their battle with Finland. Instead, the remaining 17 minutes of the third period was an incredible display of relentless tenacity and incredible skill that left a number of us at our table with our jaws agape.

It seemed that the Americans needed a miracle to overcome the aggressive forecheck of the Swedes, and they got their first break midway through the period when Minnesota-Duluth defenceman Mikey Anderson scored a power-play goal with 10:26 to go to make it 4-1. We, at the table, kind of shrugged our shoulders and agreed that three goals in ten minutes against the Swedes seemed a little far-fetched considering that Sweden had won 46-straight preliminary games.

Following that, the Americans used another power-play to cut the deficit to two goals as St. Cloud State's Ryan Poehling converted an Alexander Chmelevski pass with 6:35 to play, and there was some chatter that maybe the Americans could rally if they somehow found another couple of power-plays in the last six minutes.

With 37 seconds left, all of our eyes were affixed on the televisions when Poehling scored with 37 seconds and the goaltender on the bench to play to make it a 4-3 game. What seemed like an unthinkable possibility was within reach if the Americans could somehow find one more goal in the final 37 seconds of play.

And then this happened.
Ryan Poehling completed the natural hat trick with a goal with 23 seconds to play after Sweden failed to clear the puck from their zone, and the Americans had forced overtime with a rather remarkable four goals in ten minutes against a team that looked virtually impervious thus far in the tournament. For the first time in several years of tournaments, the Swedes suddenly looked very beatable as their 46-game win streak was in serious jeopardy.

Overtime was a rather incredible display of skill as both teams showed all sorts of dangles, dekes, two-on-one attacks, and an offensive flair that this tournament had been missing as the Americans and Swedes traded knockout punches only to be denied by the incredible goaltending of Sweden's Samuel Ersson and USA's Kyle Keyser. As the teams traded odd-man rushes back and forth, it felt like it was only a matter of time before one of these teams capitalized on a chance.

And then it happened.
Adam Boqvist, who started the two-on-one with a pokecheck, took the return pass from Lucas Elvenes and rifled the puck past an outstretched Keyser at 3:51 of the overtime period to give Sweden the victory and preserve the amazing Sweden win streak! There wasn't a lot that Joel Farabee, the lone American back, could do once Elvenes one-touched the pass back to Boqvist, and Keyser had to respect Elvenes' shot on the two-on-one. A rather remarkable game highlighted by the American comeback was ended on a perfectly-executed two-on-one by the Swedes.

Here's the rub: I likely wouldn't have watched this game had I been at home. I likely would have found something else to watch because, as stated above, I am a bad fan for not caring about the preliminary games. The preliminaries are, for the most part, nothing more than the flirting of teams to find their pairings prior to the big dance. This flirting allows for teams to find their seedings without much risk unless a team goes winless and is headed to relegation. Once pairings are formed and we get to the important games, those are the games I usually start really watching because they mean something in the bigger picture.

Tonight may have been a bit of a wake-up call for me as two of the best World Junior Championship programs put on one heckuva show in a game that might be the best of the tournament. Expect me to tune into the remaining preliminary games as the 2019 World Junior Championship progresses so I don't miss another fantastic game like this one!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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