Sweden a formidable foe for Team Canada
Defending world junior champs must maintain focus, tight defensive play in final
How many lives does Canada's national junior hockey team have left?
You can't help but ask that question as Canada puts its world junior championship title on the line Monday against Sweden in the gold-medal game at Ottawa's Scotiabank Place (7:30 p.m. ET).
The Canadians flirted with disaster for a second straight game in Saturday's night's semifinal and escaped "by the skin on your teeth" according to head coach Pat Quinn after a 6-5 shootout win over Russia.
The four-time defending world junior champs were down 3-0 to the United States two games ago, only to tap into the emotional well and deliver a 7-4 victory.
Now it's Sweden, and the Swedes are as dangerous as the Russians and Americans. They are fast, with skill, attitude and solid goaltending. And like the Canadians, they've learned to rally for a win. They trailed Slovakia 2-1 after two periods in the semifinals and won 5-3.
Again, it is a question of staying focused and playing tight defence, which just happen to be two things the Canadians have done on a regular basis at the pressure-packed tournament.
"We have had some bad starts and we have to fix that," said Jordan Eberle, the hero of the semifinal win over Russia. He scored with 5.4 seconds left to send the game into overtime and then netted the winning goal in the shootout.
The Canadians know they can do better, and they will have to if they want to win a fifth straight gold medal and tie the country's record for world junior success set in the mid-1990s.
Quinn was asked about the pressure to win and how it plays on the mind of his players.
"It goes with the territory, and you know kids make errors, and you want your kids to make fewer errors than the other guys," he said. "Hope gets in the way of circumstances and the realism of what this is. This is young men trying to be real good.
"All of the hope of the country, four [straight world junior titles] and all of those other things that are there and we have been trying to get them to forget about. We have done lots of good stuff and we need to be better defensively."
The game will have a few subplots.
Canada's offensive star is John Tavares, and he can expect to see a lot Sweden's Victor Hedman throughout the game. Tavares and Hedman are the consensus top two picks in this summer's NHL entry draft.
Quinn coached Canada to a gold medal at the 2002 Winter Olympic Games and his Swedish counterpart, Par Marts, was an assistant coach of Sweden's gold medal team at the '94 Games in Norway when it beat Canada in the final.
The Swedes will be looking to avenge a 3-2 overtime loss to Canada in the 2008 world junior final in Pardubice, Czech Republic.
And there are parallels in how both Canada and Sweden revamped their respective development programs after both countries bottomed-out at the world junior championship.
Dealing with pressure key
This is the final most predicted would be on the slate in the first Monday in January.
Canada beat Sweden 4-2 in an exhibition game just before Christmas but that game is meaningless now.
With a winner-take-all game on the line, goaltending and the ability to respond to pressure will be huge factors.
"The pressure is on Canada," said Mikael Backlund, a Calgary Flames prospect. "If Canada loses, the whole country will be sad."
Dustin Tokarski will be in net for Canada and Jacob Markstrom for Sweden.
The Canadians and Swedes say they've yet to play their best hockey, and now they have the gold-medal game to show they have more to give.
Both finalists talked Sunday about not panicking.
"If it does happen [get behind in the game], we will be prepared," said Tavares. "We can't push the panic button. We want a better start and a more solid game. We have to come out better."
Swedish defenceman Erik Karlsson, who was drafted by the Ottawa Senators, feels Canada isn't the only team that has rallied from the brink, and that bodes well.
"The game against Slovakia was great. We didn't get stressed out," he said.
The last word goes to Canadian forward Angelo Esposito.
"A cat has nine lives," he responded to a question about how many more lives do the Canadian juniors have.
So far the Canadians have used two, and while they want to avoid a hat trick, the Canadians will take it if it means mining gold in the national capital.