Friday, January 04, 2013

Still something to prove for RNH and company

When Ryan Nugent-Hopkins confirmed that he and his shoulder would be available for the World Juniors this year, it appeared that Canada would be without excuse.  (Not that they ever are.)  The blissful effect that an NHL lockout can have on Canada's gold medal hopes at the World Juniors has been well-reported for months.  In Nugent-Hopkins, Canada was supposed to have a Patrice Bergeron 2.0 – the type of player that, thanks to the lockout, would catalyze utter dominance, a la 2005.  With even more offensive upside than Bergeron had as a 19-year-old, it seemed the sky was the limit for where the Nuge could take Canada.

That was all just 24 hours ago.  As it currently stands, Canada will play for bronze for the second consecutive year.  What exactly happened?  Given the country's expectations for Nugent-Hopkins, in particular, it might be all too easy to center the blame on the Oilers star.  Having gone pointless against the United States in their semifinal loss, it's safe to say that Canada required more of their captain.  But if we're going to uphold the 2005 comparison, Bergeron's supporting cast was, in a word, immaculate (Perry, Getzlaf, Richards, Carter, Phaneuf, etc, etc.).  Nugent-Hopkins may have been held off the scoresheet, but Canada's roster as a whole failed to perform against the Americans.

From tournament get-go, it was apparent that this Team Canada was a work in progress.  Virtually anything they did in their own zone was alarming and their powerplay was worse still.  Too often Canada's defence seemed incapable of a proper breakout or proper coverage.  Crossing either blueline seemed a chore.  Fortunately, they were able to hone their game against Germany and Slovakia, after which they did improve.  So much so that they manhandled Russia after holding on against the States the first time around. 

With a couple days off for bad habits and lazy plays to settle themselves back into Canada's repertoire, however, they followed a perfect game against Russia with their worst performance of the tournament. 

Often times, Canada gets away with their B-game at the World Juniors, even against the US.  But Canada was as bad as American goaltender John Gibson was good.  And that ultimately put the game – and tournament – away for Nugent-Hopkins and company. 

Nevertheless, it can be hard to keep things in perspective as Canadian hockey fans.  This country's juniors have so consistently spoiled us in previous World Juniors that playing for bronze embitters us far too easily.  This Friday, Canada will attempt their 15th consecutive medal.  Let that settle in until you feel pride in this country's junior program again.  It is a phenomenal accomplishment in any tournament for any sport.

So as much as it seems like it, this World Juniors is not yet over.  There is still pride to be won.  Nugent-Hopkins remains the tournament's best player and will have to play the part if Canada wants to beat Russia a second time on Friday.  Bring it home, boys.


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