2021 WJC: 3 Takeaways from Canada’s Narrow Victory Against Slovakia

In sharp contrast to Saturday night’s demolishing of Team Germany, Team Canada suited up against Team Slovakia on Sunday, a group motivated to build on their opening night shutout win over Switzerland. While many fans likely thought that Sunday night’s tilt would be another classic Canadian blowout, it was anything but, as Canada’s sloppy play gave the Slovaks a fighting chance throughout the contest.

Despite that the Red and White ultimately escaped with the victory, it didn’t come easy. Through most of the game, they looked disorganized and lacked chemistry, which resulted in a much slower pace of play. With the game close, Team Canada didn’t seem to have any urgency in their game plan, which made Sunday night’s contest a nail-biter.

Related: THW World Juniors Coverage

Whether it was their offense that was oddly quiet, a forecheck that lacked intensity or simple passes that didn’t connect, here are three takeaways from a game that shouldn’t have been as close as it was.

1. Levi and Hlavaj Stole the Show

Without much offense, the goaltending duel took centre stage and replaced Team Canada’s typical high-octane style. Dollard-des-Ormeaux native Devon Levi was spectacular again, bailing out his teammates and shutting the door on any possible Slovak comeback.

Bowen Byram Devon Levi Canada Michal Mrazik Slovakia
Levi has been spectacular in both of Canada’s games so far. (Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images)

On his 19th birthday, Levi was between the pipes for a second straight night to face another smaller hockey country. While the Slovaks didn’t create as many chances as Team Germany, Levi had to be sharp, turning aside 17 of 18 shots and making a handful of tricky saves off deflections from the point and chances off uncharacteristic giveaways.

At the other end, Samuel Hlavaj was slightly busier, facing 22 shots while surviving an onslaught of sustained pressure. Credit where credit is due, Hlavaj did an outstanding job fending off point-blank chances for Connor McMichael and Jakob Pelletier. For a player who was widely regarded as the starter for Team Slovakia heading into the tournament, Hlavaj was a big reason why the pesky Slovaks managed to stick around.

Phoenix Sherbrook Samuel Hlavaj
Hlavaj was the main reason Slovakia remained competitive. (Vincent L.-Rousseau/Phœnix Sherbrooke)

Regardless of the outcome, Hlavaj’s performance against the Canadians should be a significant confidence boost for the 19-year-old. He won Player of the Game honours for his country, a bittersweet end to a commendable effort, but it should motivate him and his team to remain competitive as the tournament continues.

2. Byram and Drysdale Continue to Impress

While Canada as a unit seemed disorganized for most of the contest, it was their best and most experienced defensemen who settled things down. When Bowen Byram and Jamie Drysdale were first paired together in selection camp, many acknowledged that Canada had arguably the best top defensive duo in the tournament. On Sunday night, the two lived up to the praise and proved exactly why they are so relied upon in high-leverage situations.

Jamie Drysdale, OHL, Erie Otters
Drysdale was selected 6th overall by the Anaheim Ducks in 2020. (Photo by Terry Wilson / OHL Images)

The duo put their elite skating ability on full display, occupying the middle of the ice and closing off passing lanes. They also kept the Slovak forwards to the perimeter, turned giveaways into breakouts, and hunted down loose pucks with ease. They stepped up physically as well. After Byram lowered the boom on Jakub Kolenic, the pair quickly took control defensively, not giving the Slovaks any room to manoeuvre and foiling most of their attempts to establish an effective offensive system.

Although goals were at a premium on Sunday, the two continued their contributions upfront, in addition to playing a reliable defensive game. With elite vision and the wherewithal to cover a lot of ground, Byram and Drysdale had a handful of good looks from the point.

Bowen Byram Vancouver Giants
Byram is a big piece of an elite Colorado Avalanche prospect pool. (Chris Relke/Vancouver Giants)

Byram, in particular, was the lone defenseman on Team Canada’s power play, and his offensive game is what makes him such a gifted player. His ability to get the puck through traffic benefited his team in this matchup, but his quick decision-making skills, as well as his effort to maintain offensive pressure, is why the Canadians continue to log an absurd amount of time in the offensive zone.

3. Canada’s Lack of Chemistry a Cause for Concern

Team Canada has room for improvement. Not only was their offense stymied by a Slovak team with only a couple of notable players, but their game plan seemed stagnant. They lacked their trademark speed and intensity in a matchup that was heavily-contested, unlike their tournament opener.

Aside from the first half of the opening period, Canada didn’t seem to have any puck support behind their forechecking efforts, which allowed Slovakia to take advantage of the gaps and breakout with minimal effort. Match that with Canada’s chaotic zone entries, along with a handful of careless passes, and it’s easy to see why they struggled to establish consistent scoring chances.

Cole Perfetti, OHL, Saginaw Spirit
The Perfetti line was rather quiet on Sunday. (Photo courtesy CHL Images)

The most concerning takeaway from Sunday’s contest was Team Canada’s power play, which couldn’t find any structure. Cole Perfetti, Connor McMichael, and Peyton Krebs, the only line that has stuck together since the pre-tourney, struggled mightily on both opportunities with the man advantage. With passes around the perimeter and no real opportunities in tight, the power play was often stationary, which allowed Team Slovakia to block passing lanes and redirect the puck away from the middle of the ice.

Even if you think this is simply a sign of rust from a rather unpredictable precursor to tournament play, it’s still a cause for concern. Canada has found themselves in a surprisingly weak group, something that could lull them into a false sense of security heading into the medal round.

Jack Quinn Ottawa 67's
Jack Quinn scored an empty netter that sealed the victory for Canada. (Photo by Terry Wilson / OHL Images)

With the United States, Sweden and Russia all in Group B, the Canadians will likely not be as battle-tested as those in Group B, which could spell disaster heading into the medal round. Should this version of Team Canada stick around, don’t be surprised if the tournament hosts exit the Edmonton bubble much earlier than anticipated.

A Much-Needed Day Off

Following back-to-back games, Team Canada heads into a new week looking to rest and recover ahead of a Tuesday showdown with Team Switzerland. With the team hitting the ice for practice on Monday, Canada will be given an important opportunity to improve on zone entries, power play strategy, and overall chemistry. Similar to the Slovaks, the Swiss have also not down quietly in recent tournaments, and should provide Canada with another test as group action rolls on.

Looking ahead to Tuesday, Canada will be getting some reinforcements. Braden Schneider, who served a one-game suspension for an illegal hit to the head against Germany, should be back in the lineup and ready to go. Dylan Holloway, who missed the game against Slovakia with what the team is calling an upper-body injury, should be ready to return as well after he was listed as day-to-day.

Tuesday’s contest is set for 4:00 P.M. MST/6:00 P.M. EST.

What caught your eye during Canada’s game against Slovakia? How do you see the Canadians shaping up against Switzerland? Let me know in the comments.

All the 2021 World Junior Championship Team Information:

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7 Predictions for the 2021 World Junior Championship

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