MANNHEIM, Germany – A third loss in four games means Canada will have to get to the semifinals the hard way at the IIHF World Hockey Championship. Through Russia.
Leaving Mannheim after Tuesday’s chippy 3-2 loss to the Czech Republic, the Canadians will spend the rest of the tournament a couple hundred kilometres away in Cologne where the powerful Russians await Thursday.
Russia is the country everybody was hoping to avoid in the quarter-finals at this championship. Canada finds itself in that unenviable position after losses to Switzerland, Sweden and the Czechs.
The Russians are riding a 24-game win streak at the world championship and are still smarting from an embarrassing 7-3 loss to Canada in the quarter-finals at the Vancouver Olympics. It’s safe to assume there’s probably some revenge on the minds of the 14 Russian players who are here from that team.
The Canadians were seeing the glass half-full, however.
“Going into the quarter-finals, it’s do or die regardless,” said captain Ray Whitney. “It shouldn’t matter who you’re going to play. As we found out four of the last five games, anybody can give you a heck of a game any night. We realized we played better tonight—we’re going to take that and we’re going to leave everything else behind.
“Let’s go to Cologne and get a fresh start. We’re going to have to play a hell of a game on Thursday, but we’re prepared to do that.”
Added forward Steven Stamkos: “(We’re feeling) disappointment obviously, but no panic. We’re in the quarter-finals. We’ve just got to go the hard way.”
There were some pluses to be taken away from the game against the Czechs. The team showed a lot more fight than it had in the 3-1 loss to Sweden on Sunday and got a much better performance from goaltender Chris Mason, who made 33 saves.
Afterwards, everyone in the Canadian camp was trying to stay positive.
“There’s no point during the tournament that I felt any better about our team than I do right now,” said coach Craig MacTavish. “We did a lot of the things that we talked at length about over the last few days. We’re in a lot better shape here than we have been at any point in this tournament.
“I think the message is clear: This is a very difficult tournament, it’s going to be difficult to win. But we’re one of the teams certainly that can win.”
Lukas Kaspar, Jaromir Jagr and Jakub Klepis scored for the Czech Republic (4-2), which avoided missing the quarter-finals for the first time in history. Whitney and Matt Duchene replied for Canada (3-3).
Even though the Canadian team won three times in its opening six games, none of those results come with much confidence because they were all against teams that are now out of the tournament. Canada scored just four goals in its three losses and will need more offence moving forward.
The team will also have to cut down on costly turnovers like the one committed by Jordan Eberle late in the first period against the Czech Republic that led to Kaspar’s short-handed goal.
A Russian lineup that features such offensive stars as Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk will be looking to exploit such mistakes. Many expect them to win a third straight world championship this weekend.
“There’s no question about it, they’ve got the biggest stars,” said Czech forward Jaromir Jagr when asked if Russia is the favourite. “Everybody came from the NHL. For sure they want to win a third straight. You know how it is, it’s up to the one game.
“Nothing is 100 per cent.”
It’s the kind of message the Canadian players will receive from the coaching staff. The team will likely focus on playing a patient defensive game meant to frustrate the Russian attack.
“They’re obviously going to be a very tough team to defend,” said Stamkos. “They’ve got some offensive firepower. I think their forwards are top-notch, we’ve just need to limit their time and space, get pucks in deep and see what happens.
“We’re going to have to obviously play our `A’ game to beat them.”
The Canadians no doubt would have liked to have met the Russians in the final, a sentiment Russian forward Ilya Kovalchuk shared.
“They are always good and it doesn’t matter who is playing for the Canadians because it is a good rivalry, Russia-Canada,” he said. “(It) is too bad we meet in the quarter-finals but it will be a big match for us.”
Very little has gone right for the Canadian team at this tournament so there isn’t very much to lose. While some might see a game against the Russians as the last stop before going home, the Canadian see it as an opportunity to do something special and change their fortunes.
Against all odds, they believe they have a chance.
“Don’t lose the next one, that’s the clear message,” said MacTavish. “Sometimes you have to go in the back door. There was lots of positive signs in the group, there was lots of battle in our group tonight.
“I’m not going to sit up here and try to poke holes in our game when I thought our game was pretty darn good.”