By Stephen Whyno, The Canadian Press
MINSK, Belarus – That’s more of what everyone expected from Team Canada.
Not just the three goals in seven minutes in the third period, but a better effort in a 4-1 victory over Slovakia on Saturday at the world hockey championship than Canada showed in a stunning shootout loss to France.
“Our team was much better tonight than it was last night for longer periods of time,” coach Dave Tippett said. “We were harder on the forecheck, harder at the net. … We put a lot of pressure on that veteran group today to make sure this gets done tonight and that’s why it’s good to see the guys do it.”
That veteran group was led by Joel Ward, who scored twice, and Cody Hodgson and Kevin Bieksa, who each scored once in a game that was tied 1-1 until early in the third period. Those players aren’t seasoned internationally, but they’ve been part of plenty of NHL games and came up big when Canada was in danger of losing two straight to start this tournament for the first time since pro players started going in 1977.
A lack of familiarity between teammates contributed to the loss in the opener and there was some disjointed play early on against Slovakia. But Hodgson doesn’t think that should be an excuse or that the expectations should be lowered for this Team Canada.
“It’s not something that we’re used to, losing, especially early on,” he said. “We’re Canadian hockey players and that’s what we were born to do. It shouldn’t take too long to get accustomed to each other.”
It will take some more time before things are perfect on that front, but it’s a process that will continue with Monday’s game against the Czech Republic and beyond. Tippett sees improvement shift-by-shift.
“The players, you’re starting to find rhythms, find roles,” he said. “They know when they’re going out there, they know situations that they play in. So they get more comfortable, they get more comfortable with the team game.”
One way to make Canada’s team game work is to simply play five-on-five. Through two games, this team hasn’t given up a goal at even strength, but after bad penalties against France, another parade to the penalty box led to Karol Sloboda’s power-play goal at 12:24 of the second period.
Canada took three penalties in the second period, which was again problematic.
“It’s definitely a different game,” Ward said. “It took us adjusting for sure. It’s a different style. We’re not used to the wide rink.”
What Canadian hockey players are used to doing on the international stage is putting up goals in bunches. Ward tied the score at 1 at the 17:24 mark of the second by tipping Jason Garrison’s shot past Czech goaltender Jan Laco, and his first goal in a Team Canada jersey provided a spark.
Hodgson scored what turned out to be the game-winner 7:07 into the third period, taking a pass from Nazem Kadri and beating Laco with a perfect shot from between the faceoff circles. Bieksa piled on with a goal that tipped up and over Laco and in at 17:56, then Ward put the icing on at 18:49.
“I think we started to get a few bounces,” Tippett said. “We had some great chances early, didn’t capitalize. It’s nice to see things even out in the end. It gives players confidence. Everybody worked hard tonight. It’s good to see players get rewarded, even though it was late.”
It took until the third period before this Team Canada could breathe easy, but once Laco started wearing down and goaltender Ben Scrivens stayed strong in making 23 saves on 24 shots, the floodgates opened to make it look like more of a lopsided game than it really was.
“I don’t think we’re going to blow teams out,” Scrivens said. “This was a tighter game than the score showed, but we stuck with it and that’s what we’re going to have to do all tournament, I think.”
By the end, Canada was having fun after a night in which it dealt with plenty of jeers from a mostly pro-Slovak crowd at Chizhovka-Arena.
“Any time you’re winning, it’s always a good time,” Ward said. “Regardless if you’re up by one or two or four, you’re excited to be winning.”
NOTES â€” Scrivens started the second game of the tournament as planned after James Reimer played against France based on seniority. … Sean Monahan played more in the first two periods than he did the entire game against France as he split time with Mark Scheifele as the fourth-line centre.
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