I've talked about it in a lot in my Team Canada discussions, specifically I like to talk about how a team will react to it. There are some teams that will just be so dominant they don't really have to think about adversity, especially in short tournaments like the World Juniors, but eventually, whether it's the next year or the next year, a team will face it. I think a lot of times adversity is harder to overcome if a team isn't used to dealing with it. Gretzky touched upon that idea regarding the Soviet teams of the late 70s and early 80s, he said that although they played great with a lead, if you could stay in the game you saw a different and more vulnerable team.
Going into yesterday morning's game against the Swedes, Team Canada hadn't lost in 20 straight games, had a 400 or so minute EV shut out streak and hadn't let in a goal since the gold medal game of last year. They rolled over the Russian stars in the Super Series this summer, and although the Czechs and Slovaks played them tough, neither team managed a goal against. The closest thing to adversity that Canada has faced in approximately 3 years is a scare in the semi finals against Team USA last year, and that had more to do with Canada being asleep than the USA really bringing it.
In my opinion, pretty much everything was going according to plan going into the third period against Sweden. Team Canada was up by a couple goals, had one completely dominating PK effort in which Sweden barely touched the puck and besides the fact the Swedes were getting the odd scoring chance, I never felt the Canadians were letting things slip out of hand. The turning point, beyond a doubt in my mind, came when the PKing Canadians stole the puck from the Swedes on the points, then had a 2-0 chance. Instead of calmly skating it up, the puck was miss-passed and turned into a dump in. The Swedes recovered the puck and scored on an absolute beauty point shot. Instead of a 3-0 affair, the game was now 2-1. For about 5 minutes after that, the Canadians were a complete disaster of a team.
The Swedes next two goals were either extremely flukey or extremely skillful (or a combination of both). Jonathan Bernier made an extremely difficult save on one chance, only to have puck (now behind the net) deflect off his skate as he scrambled back into position. The next goal deflected off a defenceman's skate on a play that was either a unsuccesful centering pass or a genius read. 3-2 Sweden.
Fortune smiled upon Team Canada as the Swedes received a phantom call against, already shorthanded. Canada scored on a beauty play started by John Tavares (whom I believe should be given more ice time) who made a fake spinarama pass to Turris out front who put it past the Swedish goalie, but not all the way in. Ice cold Claude Giroux managed to bang home the puck and the Canadians were seemingly back in the game.
The Swedes however, would not be denied. With less than a minute to go in the third period, and the game looking more and more like an OT or shootout affair, a series of blunders occured , almost all by players who need to be leaders on this team for it to be successful.
1. Brad Marchand gets the puck near the top of the circle in the Swedish zone, instead of getting the puck deep (as he is the high man in the zone), he dangles it towards the blueline and is overwhelmed by two Swedish players.
2. One Swedish players gets on a partial break past Thomas Hickey, however, not by Drew Doughty. Instead of letting Doughty handle it, Hickey continues to persue the Swede. Doughty also continues to persue the Swede, eventually falling (to try cut off the shooting angle?) and therefore pretty much eliminating Hickey's effectiveness. Meantime, the Swede simply skates a little past the two inept Canadian defenceman and centers the puck to a wide open player.
3. Meanwhile, Bernier, forgetting everything he's ever learned about goaltending, completely overplays the Swede being covered by two Canadian defenceman and has no real angle at the net. By the time the centering pass is made, Bernier has completely vacated his net. The puck is easily banged home.
Now there are a lot of questions about what happened in that play, but it was only a microchasm of the whole game and Canada's general reaction to a little bit of adversity. Panic. It was not a pretty sight.
Now there are a couple of positives to be taken from this experience - firstly, it wasn't an elimination game. Team Canada supporters saw a similar reaction to adversity way back in 2004 when a team consisting of a lot of great NHLers saw Team USA snatch victory from the jaws of defeat coming back in the third period after Marc-Andre Fleury banked a goal in off his own teammate.
Secondly, it should be painfully obvious now that Canada is not immortal. They've gone unbeaten for so long that perhaps they had forgotten what it was like to lose, perhaps they had forgotten that sting. That's the sting that motivated Canada to greatness in 2005, and perhaps this team can figure out what it takes now rather than wait till next year.
Today Canada will play Denmark, and they will win. Steve Mason will be starting in goal, and I believe that is a sign he will be our goalie in the elimination portion of this tournament - that misplay by Bernier at a key moment was enough for Hartsburg to believe a change was necessary.
The question now, is who will step and lead this team? In 2005 it was leadership by commitee, in 2006 is was Steve Downie and Justin Pogge who inspired, and in 2006 it was Jonathan Toews and Carey Price that took the team and put it on their shoulders (Marc Staal honourable mention). Will Stephan Legien and Brandon Sutter take this team by the collar and give everyone a shake? Will Steve Mason pull a Manny Legace and win games single-handidly? Will Karl Alzner take control of this group by shutting down the opposition and making a phsyical statement?
Or will Team Canada go out with a whimper when it comes time to face the music in quarterfinals?