The gold-medal drought for the Canadian junior team at the IIHF World Under-20 Championship was extended to a fourth year with Canada's 5-1 loss to the United States in the 2013 semifinals on Thursday.
But even more disconcerting for Hockey Canada should be the way its junior team was thoroughly beaten by the United States. Canada was dominated in every area of its game. This was arguably the most disappointing result for the Canadian junior program since its embarrassing 6-3 loss to Kazakhstan in the seventh-place game in 1998.
While the NHL lockout angers hockey fans, work stoppages in the pros have historically been a good thing for the Canadian juniors. They went a perfect 7-0-0 en route to a gold medal in 1994-95. Sidney Crosby, Patrice Bergeron and the 2004-05 Canadian Dream Team had an ultra-easy time piling up six consecutive victories to claim the championship in Grand Forks, N.D.
Even this time, Canada skated through the round-robin portion of the tournament with little difficulty to extend the win streak in NHL lockout years to 17 games. But the combination of the the U.S. juniors finding their groove after back-to-back losses to Russia and Canada last weekend and the Canadians coming out rather musty after a two-day layoff added up to a semifinal loss for Canada for the second straight year.
When there is no NHL lockout, excuses can be made for the Canadian junior team. Usually, there are a few junior-aged Canadians playing in the NHL and thus unavailable. But with the exception of injured Everett Silvertips defenceman Ryan Murray, who is recovering from a shoulder injury, Canada had all its top teenaged talent on board.
Here are five observations from Canada's one-sided defeat.
1. I've found in a short-term tournament like this, involving the fragile confidence of junior-aged talent, the Canadian juniors often do not perform well when they face adversity or intense game situations for the first time in the playoff round. I've witnessed on many occasions in this event Canada piling up victories with relative ease in the round robin, only to get knocked out when the going gets tough in the games that matter.
Need some examples?
2. I'm not buying the argument that a two-day layoff hurt Canada. Some have brought up the fact that three of the last six world junior champs played a quarter-final game.
But you can spin statistics any way you want. When Canada won five gold medals in a row between 2005 and 2009, it had a bye to the semifinals and a two-day rest in four of those five occasions. It certainly didn't hurt Sweden in its dramatic 3-2 shootout win over Russia in the other semifinal.
The Canadian juniors simply did not start well and could not get on track on Thursday. The U.S. was playing its third must-win game and continued to thrive under the pressure. U.S. goalie John Gibson also was on his game, and any good scoring chance Canada had in its comeback attempt was snuffed out by Gibson, until Ty Rattie's shorthanded goal early in the third period.
We should mention that the playoff format will change at the world junior next year. There will be four quarter-final games instead of two (no semifinal byes) with eight teams qualifying for the playoff round instead of six.
3. It's easy to point the finger at Canadian goalie Malcolm Subban, who allowed four goals on 16 shots before he was pulled midway through the second period. But Subban alone can't be blamed. This was a horrible performance from top to bottom for Canada, including head coach Steve Spott's failure to have his team ready for the speedy U.S. attack.
Sure, it would have been nice for Subban to make an early sensational stop or two. But he could not be faulted for any of the first three goals.
Some people will look at the performance of Subban's replacement, Jordan Binnington, who stopped 25 of 26 shots. They will question whether Binnington should have been given the starting role and conveniently forget how well Subban played in victories over the U.S. and Russia on Sunday and Monday, respectively.
4. There were two areas that were so important for the Canadian juniors in this game against the U.S. They had to stay out of the penalty box. They didn't, taking seven minor penalties (eight if you include Griffin Reihart's cross-checking infraction at the end of the game).
Canada also had to keep a watchful eye on the U.S. defencemen in the Canadian end of the rink. Why? Because the U.S. defencemen were a big part of their team's offence. They had scored eight of the U.S.'s 26 goals entering the semifinals.
What happened on the first two U.S. goals? A defenceman, captain Jake McCabe, scored twice because he was left uncovered thanks to some sloppy defensive zone coverage from the Canadians.
Canada had its top defence pairing -- Dougie Hamilton and Scott Harrington -- on the ice for the opening goal as well as its shutdown forward line of Boone Jenner, Brett Ritchie and Phillip Danault.
But also, where were big guns Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Mark Scheifele, Jonathan Drouin, Jonathan Huberdeau and Ryan Strome? Huberdeau was a minus-4 for the game. Strome was minus-3. Nugent-Hopkins didn't have a shot on goal until the second period and put only three on Gibson in the entire game.
5. Canada still can salvage a bronze medal on Saturday by beating the Russians for a second time in this tournament. If I was Spott I would hammer home the fact that Canada has a 14-year streak of winning a medal at the world junior tournament and only twice in the past 24 years -- in 1992 and 1998 -- has Canada not returned home with a gold, silver or bronze medal.
Sometimes there is nothing like a little fear factor to get a team chugging in the right direction. Unfortunately for the Canadian juniors, they didn't have enough of that fear factor on Thursday.
Do you have improvements to suggest for this page?