|Jonathan Huberdeau battles for the position against Slovakia in the IIHF World Championship in Minsk, Belarus (Richard Wolowicz / HHOF-IIHF Images)
The 2014 IIHF World Championships are underway in Minsk, Belarus, and through three games, the five Florida Panthers playing in the tournament have their countries near the top of the standings.
Jonathan Huberdeau and Erik Gudbranson’s Team Canada sit atop Group A with seven points (two wins and a shootout loss). The United States, which features Panthers Jimmy Hayes, Drew Shore and Vincent Trocheck, sits in the second spot in Group B, with two wins, a regulation loss and six points through their first three contests. Both squads have Tuesday and Wednesday off before picking up the action again on Thursday.
On Friday, in their tournament opener, Canada stumbled out of the gate, falling 3-2 to France in the shootout. Gudbranson scored midway through the third period to put Canada up 2-1, but France bounced back just a few minutes later, scoring a power-play goal that would keep the game tied through regulation and overtime. The goal for Gudbranson was his first of the tournament as his shot from the slot ricocheted off the post and the back of former NHL goaltender Cristobal Huet before trickling over the goal line.
“I just tried to hit the net and I got a lucky bounce with it going off his rear end there and it went in the net,” Gudbranson said on the goal.
The Canadians bounced back from the opening loss to win their next two games, defeating Slovakia 4-1 on Saturday and the Czech Republic 4-3 on Monday. Gudbranson attributed the bounce-back to the team coming together and committing to play the tough and smart style of hockey that Canada is known for.
“Tighten it up, play physical, get to the front of the net for the forwards and just make simple plays as defensemen and see if we can jump in.” Gudbranson said. “Really just cleaning up our game, minimizing turnovers and playing a more direct Canadian style of hockey is what we wanted to do.”
Gudbranson’s defensive partner through the early games has been his Minsk roommate, Ryan Ellis of the Nashville Predators. Ellis, who is 23, and the 22-year old Gudbranson, have been an effective young tandem on the blue line for the Canadians. The duo is +4 through the tournament’s first three games.
Huberdeau is also finding success with his Canadian linemates in Belarus. The Panthers second-year forward has been playing alongside Sean Monahan of the Calgary Flames and Joel Ward of the Washington Capitals. Huberdeau credited his line’s strong play to their desire to keep things simple and play smart defensively.
“I think our line is going pretty well right now. I think we’re just trying to keep it simple and that’s what we’re doing,” Huberdeau said. “Be good defensively and things will come offensively.”
That offense was on display in Monday’s 4-3 victory when Joel Ward scored a huge first period goal off assists from Monahan and Huberdeau. The goal was Ward’s third of the tournament and came with the Canadians down 1-0 and struggling to find their way against a Czech team that came out flying in the early going.
Huberdeau and Monahan, at 20 and 19-years of age, respectively, are Canada’s youngest forwards and they have benefited from playing alongside the veteran Ward (33). According to Huberdeau, the strategy is really quite simple.
“Ward is really hot right now so we’re trying to pass him the puck,” Huberdeau said.
Over in Group B, the United States jumped all over Belarus in their opener on Friday, topping the host country 6-1, much to the disappointment of the rowdy home fans. Hayes tallied an assist and was named the game’s Best Player while his brother Kevin tallied an assist of his own. For the Dorchester, Massachusetts native, playing for his country alongside his younger brother, a 2010 first round selection of the Blackhawks, is an experience unlike any other.
“There are not too many opportunities to play for the U.S. national team with your brother, so it’s a dream come true,” Jimmy Hayes said. It’s a great opportunity for both of us to play with one another and alongside each other.”
Following their win over Belarus on Friday, the U.S. topped Switzerland 3-2 on Saturday before falling 6-1 on Monday to the high-octane Russians who are led by tournament scoring leader Alexander Ovechkin, who has six points in three games (3-3-6).
At first and second place in their respective groups, both Canada and the U.S. are in good position for the medal round, as the top four teams in each group advance to the quarterfinals. Both teams will be back on the ice on Thursday following a two day break, with the U.S. facing Latvia and Canada taking on Denmark.
Stay tuned to FloridaPanthers.com for continuing updates and interviews throughout the tournament.