|(Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images)
The first test is out of the way. Now the real challenge begins.
For the five Florida Panthers players competing in the 2014 IIHF World Championship in Minsk, Belarus, advancing past the preliminary round is just the first step in the quest for a gold medal. Now for Jonathan Huberdeau and Erik Gudbranson of Team Canada, and Jimmy Hayes, Drew Shore and Vincent Trocheck of Team USA, it is win or go home in the single-elimination quarterfinals.
The United States, who finished second in Group B, will face the Czech Republic, the third place team from Group A, at 9:00 a.m. ET on Thursday. As the top team from Group A, Canada will take on Finland in a quarterfinal game at 1:00 p.m. ET on Thursday. Finland finished fourth in Group B, compiling 11 points and a 3-1-3-0 record in the preliminary round.
With their first place finish in Group A, the Canadians made a strong statement that this year’s team intends to end the recent stretch of underwhelming Canadian World Championship performances. In the last four World Championships, Canada has not finished higher than fifth place, and it looked like more of the same was in store when the team dropped their tournament opener to France, losing 3-2 in a shootout. Canada quickly got back on track, beating Slovakia 4-1 in their second game. Since then, they have not looked back, winning the rest of their preliminary games to finish with a 5-1-1-0 record and 18 points.
Canada’s biggest win thus far came on Sunday, in their penultimate preliminary round game, when they defeated Sweden 3-2 in overtime. The Canadians showed their resiliency, coming back from a 2-0 deficit to send the game to overtime, where defenseman Ryan Ellis would score the game-winner. Huberdeau, who recorded an assist on Canada’s first goal and was named Canada’s Best Player of the game, attributed his team’s success to their ability to remain calm in the face of adversity.
“We don’t panic on the bench,” Huberdeau told TSN following the game. “We were down 2-0, but we all stayed focused and the coaches said play hard and play better defensively and that’s what we did and the offense came.”
Huberdeau finished the preliminary round tied for third on his team in scoring with five points (1-4-5). while wrapping up the preliminary round on a five-game scoring streak. He also added ten shots on net and was +5 through the tournament’s first seven games. Gudbranson in the meantime finished the preliminary round with one goal, seven shots on net and a +6 rating in seven games played.
|Jonathan Huberdeau celebrates Canada's first goal against Sweden with Brayden Schenn (Richard Wolowicz - HHOF / IIHF Images) |
There were plenty of ups-and-downs for the United States in the preliminary round, but when the dust settled, the Americans skated away with a 4-1-0-2 record, good for 14 points and a second place finish in Group B.
The U.S. got off to a good start, toppling host country Belarus, 6-1 in their first game. Back-to-back losses to Russia, 6-1, and Latvia, 6-5, gave the team a scare, and the Americans almost made it three straight defeats, as they required overtime heroics from Seth Jones to top Kazakhstan, 4-3. A 3-1 win over Finland and a 5-4 win over Germany helped the U.S. close out the prelims on a positive note.
The win over Germany was highlighted by an amazing shorthanded goal from Shore midway through the second period. With the Americans on the penalty kill, Shore gathered a pass from defenseman Jeff Petry at the red line. With one man to beat, Shore executed a text book between-the-legs deke, leaving the German defenseman flatfooted and in the dust. With an open look on the net, Shore snapped off a quick shot between the legs of German netminder Danny aus den Birken.
The goal was Shore’s first of the tournament. He also tallied an assist and fired six shots on net during his seven games. Hayes finished the preliminary round with one assist, ten shots on goal and a -1 rating in seven games, while Trocheck recorded eight shots and finished with a -1 rating in six games.
As the tournament enters the quarterfinals, eight teams remain in the hunt for gold and it looks like Thursday’s matchups will offer plenty of excitement. In addition to US vs. Czech Republic and Canada vs. Finland, the quarterfinal clashes include Russia taking on France and Sweden taking on Belarus.
Even more exciting is the potential of a Canada-USA semifinal, which would take place on Saturday if both teams take care of business in the quarters. The clash of the North American neighbors would feature all five Panthers competing in the tournament and it would surely be a thrilling battle with both teams so close to the ultimate goal of capturing gold.