It's time for a bit of a reality check. As much as there's the expectation Canada should be capable of winning gold at the World Junior Championship every year, it may be time to admit that this just doesn't look like Canada's year. So far, the team has been unable to put together all the elements of a tournament-winning performance. Despite a strong showing against Denmark, Canada has failed to dominate games the way many have come to expect and has been caught underestimating opponents.
Despite a team with incredible depth on paper, the best position Canada can hope to achieve exiting the round robin is third in their group. With undefeated Sweden securing first place in Group A and the United States' 4-1 defeat of Denmark assuring them second place, Team Canada has found itself in a position where, with one round robin game left to play, vulnerabilities are apparent.
Since Canada opened the tournament with a 4-2 defeat at the hands of rivals the United States, it has been a struggle for the Canadian team. A 6-1 Canadian defeat of Denmark made it seem as if Coach Dave Lowry's players had managed capitalize on his desire for more offensive output. A simplified game plan of 'think less and shoot more' seemed to be just what the doctor ordered to get the highly touted Canadian offense going. Unfortunately, the euphoric feeling of success was not to last.
Canada's game against the Swiss opened in the worst possible manner. The first period belonged to the Swiss, with two goals for which Canada could find no answer until the opening frame's last minute. The second period saw Canada level the game, but despite multiple chances in the third, Canada was unable to secure a victory. While Canada's shootout victory secured them a place in the World Junior Championship playoff rounds, it wasn't the impressive display many are used to seeing. Most fans were expecting the Swiss to pose little problem, and though a 10-1 victory wasn't expected, it certainly wasn't supposed to as close as it was.
Canada's offense has been streaky, producing big in some cases but being stymied in others. And nowhere is this more apparent than with Jake Virtanen. The Vancouver Canucks player is one of four players returning from last year's gold medal team and was expected to be an offensive leader. After all, he's the only player with NHL experience on Team Canada, and so the highest expectations for offensive production have been placed on his shoulders. Sadly, Virtanen has yet to register a point for Canada in the tournament. While stories of Virtanen connecting with his roots and playing tour guide may be charming, they won't earn Canada a gold medal. Virtanen needs to produce some points.
With Brayden Point and Dylan Strome leading the Canadian team with only four points each - a point total that doesn't include any garnered in Canada's final round robin game—the Canadian offense hasn't produced in the expected manner.
It's not just the offense, however, because Canada has given up goals which haven't been fantastic. The second Swiss goal (scored the by Oil Kings Dario Meyer) is definitely one which starting goalie Mackenzie Blackwood would have rather not allowed. Blackwood's first start of the tournament - finishing his OHL suspension - is one where Canada's starting goalie looked less than stellar, but is hopefully a thing of the past. The Canadian team will need solid performances going forward if they're to make a deep push in the World Junior Championship. The Canadian team will also have to be more disciplined. They gave up a two-man advantage and a power play goal early in their game versus Sweden. Canada can't expect to hand top-flight opponents advantages and remain unscathed.
Canada has looked shaky enough that other teams, notably possible quarterfinals opponent Finland, feel comfortable talking about defeating Canada. While such talk is nothing new in international hockey, Canada being defeated in the quarterfinals of the tournament would be something of a shock. The Canadian team failing to medal for two consecutive years (2013 and 2014) was shocking enough. A quarterfinals loss is something most Canadian junior fans hadn't even considered a possibility before the tournament started.
Canada's matchup against group-leading Sweden was one where Canadian fans hoped to see that Canada had "righted the ship" and look capable of winning the tournament, but seemed to actually be more of what Canada has shown up until this point in the tournament; Laine might be correct in his statement that Canada can be beaten.