BERNE – Coaching a lower-echelon team at the IIHF World Championship can be a bit like trying to plug multiple leaks in a boat. Try to fill the other team's net, and goals come pouring into yours. Replace old, creaky veterans, and the young replacements crack under pressure.
Dave Henderson, who has helmed Team France since 2005, knows just how hard it can be to stay on course. Under the guidance of the Montreal-born former Amiens forward, Les Bleus finally returned to the Worlds last year after being sent down to Division I in 2004. In Quebec City, they managed to avoid relegation by sweeping a two-game series with Italy on the strength of Cristobal Huet's brilliant goaltending.
But the Chicago Blackhawks netminder isn't here this year. And while France limited the host Swiss to a single goal in its opening loss, the floodgates opened when Russia tallied five first-period goals en route to a 7-2 shellacking on Sunday. The bottom line is zero points for France so far.
“In the first period, the Russians were too fast and technical for us,” Henderson told IIHF.com. “But I broke it down into three games: first period, second period, and third period. I told the guys we had to try to win the second period, and we tied it. In the third period, we could have tied it with a goal at the end, but I think being down 6-2 is tough on the morale. Our guys kept their heads in the game and they worked hard until the end. That's what we wanted. We were trying to prepare for Germany [on Tuesday] after the first period, and I thought we did a pretty good job.”
Although it's tough to pick stars among the skaters after a pair of tough losses, Henderson did identify a few guys who have pulled extra hard on the oars so far.
“I think the whole team is trying to do what we're looking for,” Henderson said by way of preface. “But for specific guys, you've got Baptiste Amar, number 27, and Laurent Meunier, number 10, our captain. Kevin Hecquefeuille had a really good game against Russia, number 84. Those are some of the guys that helped us in the second and third period.”
In terms of names that aren't on the French roster, the most striking omission is that of Sebastien Bordeleau. The Canadian-born veteran of 251 NHL games was France's top scorer last year with two goals and four assists in five games. But Bordeleau slumped this year, in his seventh season with SC Bern, and won't be back in the main World Championship host city next year.
Still, why isn't the 34-year-old forward here with France?
“We know how good Sebastien is and what he can do for us,” Henderson admitted. “But we had to make a decision. We wanted to get the lines together right away. It was a difficult decision, but we have to move on. Sebastien is born in 1975, and he's getting a little up there. Maybe his motivation wasn't as much it could be. He had a few problems with his club team this year. We understand his problem, but our problem was to get the team together. Leaving him off was a difficult decision, but so far we don't have any worries about it.”
Injuries have added a different level of concern for France, which has 11 players aged 24 or under on its roster. Defenceman Teddy Trabichet underwent shoulder surgery after exhibition games in Latvia, and Nicolas Besch is sidelined with a wrist injury.
Henderson also regrets the loss of forward Julien Desrosiers with an ankle injury in exhibition action versus Belarus, although he's determined for his team to persevere.
“Our first line was really playing well with Desrosiers, Meunier, and Yorick Treille in all the warmup games,” said Henderson. “The line was clicking offensively, and it was a good defensive line too. Julien is more offensively attuned than Laurent and Yorick, who are two-way players. Losing Julien gave us a little difficulty at the beginning, but I think we've filled the hole now. Damien Raux has taken his place. He isn't as offensively inclined, but he's doing a good job. You have to play with what you have.”
And what they have now is a crucial game with Germany, with the winner proceeding to the Qualifying Round and the loser forced to brave the Relegation Round. What's the mindset when going up against a hard-working opponent that France last defeated in IIHF World Championship play in 1997?
“We're going in to win, like they will be,” Henderson said bluntly. “Both teams want to win this game, and it's an important game for both countries. But we've got our minds set on having a really good game. We're not going to roll over and play dead, and neither will the Germans.”
It's time to sink or swim.