Team Canada faced a tough test from Switzerland on Wednesday night at the IIHF World Championships in Helsinki. Some typically clutch play from Jordan Eberle and a third period goal from Canadian Captain Ryan Getzlaf led the way as the Canadians survived an intense contest.
While not exactly considered a world hockey power, the Swiss have been a handful for the Canadians in recent international competition. They came into the game having won 2 of the past 5 meetings at the senior men’s level, including a 2-0 shutout at the 2006 Turin Olympics and a 4-1 win at the 2010 World Championships in Germany. It took a shootout for Canada to down Switzerland 3-2 at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. The Swiss are coached by Canadian Sean Simpson and advised by 3 time World Championship gold medal winning (with Canada) coach Andy Murray.
The game had an ugly start for Team Canada. After a post from Corey Perry in the first minute, Swiss star Damien Brunner, rumoured to be possibly coming to the NHL next season, tapped a puck past Canadian goalie Cam Ward less than 2 minutes in. It was another early goal given up by Ward, who also gave one up in the first 2 minutes against Team USA.
Brunner finished off a nice piece of transition hockey which seemed to take all of Team Canada by surprise. After a give-and-go with linemate Kevin Romy in the neutral zone, Brunner drove wide down the right wing waiting for a possible back door pass. Romy dropped to third member of the trio, Goran Bezina, whose shot hit a stick and found its way to Brunner. Seemingly unnoticed by Canadian defense, Brunner had no problems beating Ward and showed all night why he led the Swiss National League in scoring with his club EV Zug. Brunner had 60 points in 45 games and might get a look from some NHL clubs this summer. He has good stick skills, a crisp pass with good vision behind it and reasonable speed. He also likes to shoot the puck from anywhere.
The Swiss were trying to find free players at the back door all game long and Canada will need to be wary of this tactic going forward. It can be especially effective on the wider international ice surface where a winger can almost hide along the boards before breaking to the net.
Canada appeared somewhat sluggish in the first. They didn’t backcheck enough. They didn’t play physical enough. They let the Swiss break the puck out of their own end far too easily leading to a number of chances off the rush. One bright spot was the powerplay, especially the #1 unit that includes Edmonton Oiler teammates Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins and Chicago Blackhawk teammates Duncan Keith and Patrick Sharpe. Good chemistry and an obvious display of high-end NHL talent led to some quality chances. Sharpe had the best one as he rocketted a shot of the post after a pass from Keith. The Canadians cycled well for much of the period, but probably needed to throw more pucks at the net and do a better job of getting to the dirty areas. Though he made some decent saves in the frame, 13 in total, life was too easy for Swiss netminder Tobias Stephan. Canada finished the period trailing 1-0 and head coach Brent Sutter could not have been happy.
From the moment the puck dropped in the second period, it looked like a more focused Canadian team. Canada’s kid line of Eberle, Jeff Skinner and John Tavares got the puck in deep on the first shift and Eberle was denied by Stephan on a wraparound attempt. Only seconds later the Canucks would be rewarded for their efforts. With lots of traffic in front, Marc Methot let go a point shot that was knocked down in the high slot. Skinner pounced on the puck and fired another shot towards Stephan. The goalie made the save, but Eberle was standing right on the doorstep. Some quick hands from the Oiler and a little help from the skate of John Tavares had the puck sliding into the back of the net. Tavares got credit for the goal and the game was back on for Canada.
Eberle continues to be Mr. Clutch for Canada in international competition. He debuted at the World’s with a 4 point performance against Norway in 2010 and was a World Junior star for Canada in 2009 and 2010. This is his 3rd consecutive World’s. Tavares has a great international scoring record for Canada as well. Both players could be prospects for the 2014 Olympic squad, assuming NHL players are there.
Canada looked like they were dominating at times in the second. Their forwards were relentless on the backcheck and the Swiss transition game slowed considerably. Although they didn’t score again, they drew 2 more penalties which helped to sustain the momentum. Anaheim Duck cup winning duo Getzlaf and Perry started to wake up and their powerplay unit generated some much better chances than they had in the first. Perry also got a shorthanded chance after a nifty little toe drag in the slot. It was probably the best chance of the lone Swiss powerplay through the first 40 minutes.
Canada’s role players were doing their jobs as Teddy Purcell and Andrew Ladd did some effective banging and crashing. Ladd was even forced to play a little goalie after Cam Ward kicked out an easy rebound and scrambled to make the second save. He made it, but a third attempt was pushed towards the Canadian goal. Ladd demonstrated the kind of effort it takes to be a 2-time Stanley Cup winner and NHL captain as he dove into his own crease and batted the puck away with his glove, being careful not to cover it.
Cam Ward made a stellar right pad save late in the period as a quick shot nearly caught him leaning the wrong way. A Swiss turnover at the Canadian blueline almost gave Evander Kane a breakaway, but he was caught by a defender before he could get a good chance off. For the most part, Switzerland was collapsing heavily and walling off the front of their net. Canada was sustaining offensive zone time and looked like the team more likely to take the lead, but they couldn’t find another goal. Canadian pressure met resilient Swiss defending and the game was tied 1-1 going into the third.
In the final period, Team Canada stormed out of the gates again led by more play from Eberle. Less than a minute into the period, two consecutive offensive zone dangles put Eberle on his backhand to Stephan’s right. A gorgeous backhand clinked off the crossbar and down into the net. 2-1 for a Canadian side that looked like they wanted it.
Unfortunately for Canada, Kyle Quincey would take a slashing penalty only minutes later. The Swiss capitalized as their powerplay looked much more effective on its second opportunity. After Evander Kane lost an edge and crashed into the boards in the offensive zone, it was effectively a 5-on-3 rush for Switzerland. Brunner carried the puck over the Canadian blueline and fired it across the zone to Romy. His first touch pass put the puck on a tee for Bezina right in the high slot. Ward had no chance as Bezina, playing in his 11th World Championship, blasted it past the Canadian keeper.
In spite of the goal, Ward seemed to get better in the Canadian net as the game went on. He was tested a number of times throughout the rest of the period, including a big save on Brunner in close. The rest of the Canadian team was digging in too. The Swiss kept trying their back door pass play, but the Canadian forwards were backchecking fiercly. Newfoundlander Purcell highlighted the team first mentality of the Canadians as he came back hard to tie up a Swiss player who was alone in front of the net.
Moments later Corey Perry made a similar play and the dogged Canadian determination finally paid off. After Perry took away his man’s stick, Getzlaf cleaned up the puck in front of his own net and was off to the races down the right wing. He kept the puck all the way and finished off the play with a hard slapper that found its way under the blocker of Stephan. It must have been a rewarding moment for Team Canada. Their hard work had paid off in spades.
The teams traded a few chances down the stretch, but the Canadians refused to surrender the lead. Eberle was named player of the game for Canada. Steady defenseman Felicien du Bois got the honour for the Swiss, who lost forward Daniel Rubin after a Skinner shot deflected off his own stick and into his face, fracturing his cheekbone. Alex Burrows is still out with a concussion for Canada, but hopes to be back soon.
Another thriller between Canada and Switzerland ends 3-2 for the Canadian squad, as Switzerland prove once again that they should always be taken seriously. Next up for Canada is a big tilt with the host Finns on Friday.