PIESTANY, Slovakia – As was the case the past five years, Canadian U18 national team found itself in the championship game of the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup. And as it has also been the case the previous five years, Canada will now be departing Slovakia and the Czech Republic as the tournament’s gold medal winning champion.
This just less than four months after winning gold at the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship in Sochi, Russia.
After having defeated Finland 4-0 for gold in last summer’s tournament, Canada was able to repeat the feat today with a 4-0 victory over the USA.
The game’s heroes were many for Canada, starting with goaltender Julio Billia, who pitched a shutout in turning away all 21 shots he faced from the USA. With today’s victory, Billia finished as the tournament’s best statistical goalie featuring a 1.58 goals against average and a 91.6 save percentage in five games.
He was at no loss for words about the importance of this experience for him: “Wow, I’m feeling great right now. It’s such an honour to represent your country, but to be bringing back a gold medal, it makes this experience all that much better.”
The contest’s game-winning goal was already scored in the game’s fourth minute when Michael Dal Colle wristed a puck originally dropped back to him by Spencer Watson into the upper right hand corner of the American net, beating U.S. goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic on his glove side.
Watson himself, who came into the game with four goals and three assists, would end up assisting on three of Canada’s four goals, making him the top scorer in the tournament with four goals and six assists in five games.
The game’s second goal was shoveled in through Nedeljkovic’s pads on what initially looked like a seemingly harmless play by forward Jayce Hawryluk, whose excitement was clearly evident to all in attendance, as well as after the game.
“When I saw that goal go in, well, I honestly can’t even explain what I was feeling,” he said. “It was just big blur. I was so happy to get the boys up by two goals. It couldn’t feel any better.”
After having been prevented from creating dangerous scoring opportunities for most of the game, the U.S. spent the next 20 minutes frantically trying to get back into it, eventually reverting to putting any and every possible puck on net, regardless of the angle or how far away a shooter might have been from the goal.
Canada continued to play tight-checking defence, most particularly keeping its slot a safe place for its goalkeeper, blocking a number of shots and passes and often forcing Team USA into either ill-advised dump-ins or into skating off-sides, something that happened more times than not.
The nail in the coffin came on the strength of Captain Aaron Ekblad’s blueline power-play blast into the upper corner of the U.S. goal after 13 minutes of the third period, which was assisted by Brayden Point and Spencer Watson. It was the first of two assists for Point, who would eventually be named Canada‘s player of the game.
Not two minutes later, former NHLer Jocelyn Lemieux’s son Brayden would snap a shot in from the right side of the goal, thus concluding a goalmouth scramble and now leaving no doubt as to who would be the game’s victor. Point and Watson also gathered assists on this goal.
As the final siren had its say on the day’s event, the Canadians stormed the ice with a chorus of cheers under a maelstrom of their own gloves, sticks and helmets. The U.S. team watched gloomily from its own bench, obviously wondering about what could have been.
“Canada has a very good team and we just fell a little short. We only had two weeks together; we did our best. There was definitely a little bit of fatigue. We’ve been on the ice two times a day for two weeks and travelling and the time change. It was very hard for our guys, but we battled through and fell a little short. Over the years the U.S. has come up just short and over the years we’ve gotten closer. I feel like we’re happy with the silver”, stated a visibly weary Ryan Wagner, Team USA’s captain.
U.S. Coach Bob Corkum added: “The Canadians have a very strong defensive core, but they’ve also got a lot of good back pressure from their forwards coming through the neutral zone and we didn’t have an answer for that today. Our guys battled right to the end but it wasn’t our night. Our hats off to Canada. They worked hard, they scored some goals and they won the loose-puck battles. Our guys have nothing to be ashamed of that’s for sure.”
Naturally the wear and tear of the tournament had taken its toll on all of the teams, but perhaps few as much as the U.S. squad.
“We feel that we played well during the tournament, but we just didn’t have it today. Everyone’s going through it themselves, not just our team. It is a lot of hockey, it was very hot in Breclav, and the ice was very sticky. Our guys spent a lot of energy last night to beat the Czechs, who are a very good team,” Corkum continued.
Team Canada spent a good half an hour on the ice after the game, enjoying the moment, taking pictures, meeting with family members and celebrating what was the first international championship for a numbers of its team members.
One of the last players to leave the ice, clearly wanting to savour the moment as he also gathered a number of his teammate’s stray sticks and gloves, was assistant captain Joe Hicketts, who had assisted on Hawryluk’s goal.
“I’m feeling unreal right now. We battled so hard today. We had come back from a little adversity there Wednesday night. We pulled together as a team really well. It’s just so unreal winning this thing and keeping Canada’s streak alive at six,” said Hicketts.
Coach Dale Hunter’s excitement could hardly be contained as he discussed his team’s achievement in light of playing Team Russia one day and then the USA the next.
“The Russians have a lot of skill. Our guys bought into playing a hard game and creating next to no turnovers, because you know that Russia is very good on the transition,” he said. “Our boys played hard and smart and did whatever was asked of them.”
Transitioning from one arch rival to another within less than 24 hours was clearly going to require a number of players to step up to the challenge.
“Brayden Point had a very good game. Then we got scoring from the third and fourth lines thanks to Lemieux and Hawryluk. The Bennett line did a great job against Schmaltz’s line. Schmaltz was one of the top scorers in the tournament. When you shut down the best line – and Ekblad and Hicketts were up against them – then you usually have a good chance to win,” clarified Coach Hunter.
With the gold in tow and the team celebrating in the background, Hunter reflected on the lessons learned at the tournament and what his young champions would be taking home with them.
“These young men are going home knowing that there are good teams over here in Europe. They got to see how tough it is to play against the Russians and the Swedes. Then there was the Swiss! That was one heck of a good team. And the Czech team – that was a very good team. It was tough to play those teams,” Hunter said.
“We played the Slovaks in an exhibition game and they were a very good team. We only won 3-1. So the boys have learned that when that time comes, they better be ready to come over and play.”
Just hearing Coach Hunter point out these realizations being gathered by his champions from this gem of a summer tournament, one has to think that no one less than a Mr. Ivan Hlinka is surely out there somewhere smiling down from above.
Monday, 5 August 2013
In Piestany (14:00): Finland vs. USA 3-2 OT
In Breclav (15:30): Switzerland vs. Sweden 3-2
In Piestany (17:30): Slovakia vs. Russia 1-2
In Breclav (19:00): Czech Republic vs. Canada 0-4
Tuesday, 6 August 2013
In Piestany (14:00): USA vs. Russia 4-2
In Breclav (15:30): Sweden vs. Canada 4-3
In Piestany (17:30): Slovakia vs. Finland 1-5
In Breclav (19:00): Czech Republic vs. Switzerland 4-3 SO
Wednesday, 7 August 2013
In Piestany (14:00): Russia vs. Finland 7-3
In Breclav (15:30): Canada vs. Switzerland 4-3 SO
In Piestany (17:30): Slovakia vs. USA 2-5
In Breclav (19:00): Czech Republic vs. Sweden 5-2
Friday, 9 August 2013
7th-place game in Piestany (14:00): Sweden vs. Slovakia 11-0
5th-place game in Breclav (15:30): Finland vs. Switzerland 4-3 SO
Semi-final in Piestany (17:30): Canada vs. Russia 3-1
Semi-final in Breclav (19:00): USA vs. Czech Republic 5-3
Saturday, 10 August 2013
Gold medal game in Piestany (15:00): USA vs. Canada 0-4
Bronze medal game in Breclav (17:00): Russia vs. Czech Republic 2-3