January 05, 2009

Canada vs Sweden: 2009 WJC Gold Medal Game Preview

For my gold medal game preview, I returned to Kamloops Daily News writer and Taking Note blogger Gregg Drinnan. He has been following junior hockey as long as some of today's junior stars. Many thanks go out to Mr. Drinnan for his contributions to this website.

2009 WJC Gold Medal Game Preview:

So it's Canada and Sweden in Monday's gold medal game at the World Junior Championship in Ottawa.

And isn't this the way it was supposed to turn out?

Sweden has had something of an easier time of it but, then, isn't it the Canadian way to do it the hard way? Fall behind 3-0 against the Americans and then come this ( ) close to losing to Russia. It does make for some thrilling hockey every Christmas season, doesn't it?

The game Monday shapes up as two large boulders rolling down facing hills with spectators knowing there is going to be a mammoth collision in the valley bottom.

The Swedish team is large and, yes, physical, and isn't likely to be intimidated by the Canadian team or its 20,000 supporters, all of whom will be yelling their lungs out.

But, if it is to win its fifth straight title, Canada must get better goaltending than it has gotten, at least in its last two games. And you have to wonder if head coach Pat Quinn's apparent aversion to rolling four lines will catch up with Canada on Monday.

To this point, Canadian hockey fans have gotten about what they expected out of John Tavares, who obviously is a superstar at this level. But they also have been treated to the superb skills of defenceman P.K. Subban and right-winger Jordan Eberle, just to name two. Subban has shown some terrific puck-handling abilities while Eberle has shown the world that magical touch that Western Hockey League fans came to appreciate as he scored 70 goals over his first two seasons with the Regina Pats.

You also have to wonder about the health of Canadian forward Zach Boychuk, who saw limited ice time against Russia thanks to a wonky ankle, and Tyler Myers, the 6-foot-7 defender with the wingspan of a pterodactyl who likely has a bruised knee after blocking a shot in the semifinal.

The Canadian coaching staff's biggest decision of the tournament lies ahead -- to give goaltender Dustin Tokarski his third straight start or to throw Chet Pickard into the fire. Tokarski has been OK -- and he did stone Pavel Chernov, Russia's final shootout shooter, to clinch the berth in the final. (You are free to ask whether Russian head coach Sergei Nemchinov had a brain cramp when he didn't use Nikita Filitov, his best player, in the shootout.)

Still, in the last two games, Tokarski hasn't appeared to be anywhere near the comfort zone he was in during the Spokane Chiefs' run to the Memorial Cup title last spring. So maybe, just maybe, the Canadian coaching staff hands the gold-medal start to Pickard.

(Joe's note: It has been announced since Gregg's writing of this article that Tokarski will indeed get the start.)

The Swedes got stellar goaltending from Jacob Markstrom as they beat Slovakia in their semifinal game. Yes, Slovakia's first goal, a floater from well out, may have been soft, but it went in off a post so was rather well-placed. Markstrom held the fort after that while his mates peppered Slovakian goaltender Jaroslav Janus until he finally broke.

The final also will be an NHL scout's dream, with Victor Hedman, the highly touted Swedish defenceman, going head-to-head with Tavares. One of the two almost certainly will be the top pick in the NHL's 2009 draft.

But if the Swedes are to win, they will do it with offense from one or both of Mikael Backlund and Oscar Moller.

Backlund scored twice against Slovakia and that is saying a lot considering what this young man is going through. There have been stories for a month now that VIK Vasteras, the team for which he plays in the Elitserien, Sweden's top league, isn't going to have him back after this tournament. There also are reports that Backlund has been unhappy with the lack of ice time afforded him by his club team. The Calgary Flames hold his NHL rights; the Kelowna Rockets hold his major junior rights. Kelowna president/general manager Bruce Hamilton is in Ottawa.
And yet Backlund has been able to set all off this aside and help lead his mates into the final.

As for Moller, he's a game breaker as well. He totaled 151 points in 131 games with the Chilliwack Bruins in their first two seasons of existence and then, this season, cracked the lineup of the NHL's Los Angeles Kings. Moller, too, could be the difference on Monday.

The pick from this corner is: Sweden 5-3. ( Joe's Note: For more on Team Sweden, check out Sean Gordon's report at the Globe And Mail)

A couple of other things: The Canada-Russia game was a thriller, yes, but deciding such games in a shootout is awfully anticlimactic. Too bad the IIHF doesn't seem at all inclined to dump the shootout and to with 20-minute four-on-four sudden-death periods.

And, please, can we stop with the talk about Canada-Russia being the greatest rivalry in the history of the universe. The greatest rivalry in hockey was Canada-Soviet Union, but the rivalry has stalled somewhat since the breakup of the Soviet Union. So, please, give it a break.

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