Sun Jan 01 12:15am EST
EDMONTON — No game plan in the history of hockey has ever included a puck to the jaw — but you know, it kind of worked for Team Canada.
They finally felt the wind in their face at the world junior championship, having to close out the playing-for-pride Americans over the final 6:48 to win 3-2 in the Group B finale. They also got through a game that had no bearing on the medal round without an injury, although that was dicey. Steady Scott Harrington was taken out as a "precaution" after banging up a shoulder after being checked by Team USA's J.T. Miller in the first period. Then there was a scare in the third when defender Nathan Beaulieu was struck on the right side of his face with a slapshot. Yet Canada hung on, meaning Beaulieu having his right cheek puffed out like he had a baseball in his mouth became a sight gag.
"I think I look good," Beaulieu, who made it back to Canada's bench for the final buzzer, deadpanned. "I don't know what you guys are talking about. I think it's a good look for me. It's a just a little numb. I'm a Canadian hockey player, I can take it.
"Adversity is something we needed," the defenceman added. "We didn't have it in the first couple games [winning three games by a combined 23-3], which is a victory in itself, but I thought we battled real well at the end of the game."
Top defenders Brandon Gormley and Ryan Murray were vital over the late stages. Canada led 3-0 entering the third — who's going to be the jerk who says that was reminiscent of game in Buffalo 360 days ago — and seemed in control. However, Charlie Coyle went top cheddar with 10:11 left to end goalie Scott Wedgewood's 149-minute, 49-second shutout skein. Zucker tallied barely three minutes later to make for a white-knuckle ride.
"We have to clean that up, we can't let off the gas like we did today," said Murray, who paired with Jamie Oleksiak after his regular partner Harrington left the match. "We do that again against Sweden or Russia in the medal round, it's not going to be good. We have to play a full 60 minutes."
Be that as it may, they got through it. The U.S did not get close to scoring after Hay called timeout to calm the troops immediately after the lead shrank to 3-2 (and yes, that's that strategy Dave Cameron eschewed in the gold medal game last year).
"You really see some things from your players from how they finish the game when the game is on the line," said Hay, whose team will not skate on New Year's Day. "I think if we're in that situation again, we'll be okay."
In fact, it was exactly what Hay had focused on during Friday's practice.
"We wanted to win faceoffs, we wanted to get quick clears," said right wing Mark Stone, who had two points to give him seven goals and nine points in the round-robin. "The personnel really came through for us."
Of course, it's a canard that winning teams always prevail in the closer games. They tend to settle the issue much earlier . Canada has taken care of that area, with Stone being the first-goal scorer in 3-of-4 games.
"Our mindset is to get on the teams early," the Ottawa Senators prospect said. "Our first shifts have been excellent. You look at Freddie Hamilton's line [with wings Quinton Howden and Brett Connolly], they've had great shifts early, getting on the body. It really energizes our bench."
Power play an issue
The U.S. got back in the game after Canada couldn't capitalized on a 68-second 5-on-3 advantage in the second period. While the penalty killing has been nails, Canada's power play has been peaks and valleys during the tournament. This seemd to be a case where Team USA goalie Jack Campbell, the two-time world junior medalist who might have played his last game for the program tonight, rose to the occasion.
"I thought Campbell made a couple great saves," Beaulieu said. "We had video after the period and thought we were really good on it. It just comes down to finishing. One of these times, it's going to go in."
"If we get opportunities like that in the medal round, we're going to have to put them away," Stone said. "We spread them out pretty well. We'll obviously look at it and try to improve."
Now Canada awaits its semifinal opponent on Tuesday in Calgary. Sweden and Russia are the strongest possibilities. The best part about the round-robin is that it's over and they have a change to regroup. And they can feel relieved that Beaulieu was not seriously harmed.
"I've never had one like that, so knock on wood," Murray said. "I imagine pucks to the face don't feel too good."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet (photo: The Canadian Press).