Thursday, January 03, 2008

Team Canada vs. Team USA Pregame - Rock and A Hard Place

Going into this year's edition of the IIHF World Junior Championships, I think it was hard to point out where Canada's strengths lay. In the summer Super Series, Canada could score, hit, shut down, and it had great goaltending.

Right now it's hard to identify Canada's strengths, but for different reasons. Canada doesn't score that often, they only have two guys playing physically (Stefan Legein, Colton Gillies, Brandon Sutter is clearly injured), they haven't really contained anybody, and the goaltending, well...

I thought Jonathan Bernier played great against the Czech Republic in game one of this tournament; he looked really sharp, swallowed rebounds and looked really confident. I thought he looked sharp against the Swedes too, that is until he allowed that first goal past him (not his fault in any way in my eyes), then he just fell apart. I'm not going to say the next two goals were his fault, because they weren't. But he certainly looked like a different goalie. The fourth, well, that was just plain bad - and he certainly looked shell shocked after it happened.

Steve Mason got his first start against Slovakia, but I was at work and didn't see that game, so I can't legitimately comment besides saying that a shut out is a shut out. Still, from what I saw of Bernier, I felt it would be difficult to outplay him, and so Bernier was given the number 1 position. After that disaster, Steve Mason got his chance - IMO he did not impress. The first goal by the Finns was absolutely brutal, and apparently he's known for giving away a goal like this per game. The second goal was more forgivable, but it wasn't impressive either. And to think Canada actually played better against the Finns than they did against the Swedes makes me very nervous.

Hartsburg and co had the unenviable position of again choosing which of these goalies would start against Team USA, the rematch from last year in which another goalie, Carey Price, solidified his position as a top goaltending prospect. This is the highest pressure game either of them has likely faced, and their predecessor's shadow is about as big as it gets. And neither of them, nor the rest of the team, has played well up to this point. That Mason stands first in SV%, (.951) GAA (1.00), is a bit of an illusion, as he's only faced 58 shots, not many of them high quality - witness the two that went in as at least some evidence.

Canada has already decided to start Mason, and he will be tested tomorrow - Team USA has a very good team including James Van Reimsdyk. He's got 4g, 4a and is (+)4 in 4 games. The next highest scorer is Marek Slovak who has 9pts in 6 games. Team USA also has the 5th (Colin Wilson) and 7th (Jordan Schroeder) scorers on the tournament. Every top scorer in between 7th and 1st is no longer competing in the tournament. Mason's rival from Team USA, Jeremy Smith, has a marginally lower SV% (93.83) and GAA (1.36) and has played a half game more than Mason, also facing 20 more shots. Certainly a statistically comparable performance to Mason thus far.

The fact that Mason let in one questionable goal isn't the end of the world. Hell, great goalies let in bad goals all the time - it's simply that in short tournaments like this, every GA is greatly magnified. Whether it be tournaments like this or playoff series, most of the team that wins is the team whose goalie is playing best and is on a visually obvious hot streak. Witness Justin Pogge or Carey Price in their World Junior performances. Mason is not on a hot streak.

If Team Canada is going to succeed, somebody other than Kyle Turris, Steven Stamkos, John Tavares, or Drew Doughty has to make a big impact. Hopefully for Team Canada fans, that man will be Steve Mason.

1 comment:

riderpitts said...

two words - sit marchand - that kid has been nothing but brutal this entire tournament - if sutter was behind the bench - the kid would not be seeing much ice - especially sugar time.