World Junior Hockey 2013: Canada, Finland keep up opening day trend with big wins

Richard Wolowicz

The opening day of the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship is rarely exciting, and it usually pits the tournament's most dominant teams against the ones that are likely to be competing in the relegation round. Canada vs. Germany and Finland vs. Latvia lived up to that billing, but the day wasn't a complete formality.

The way the IIHF World Juniors are currently structured, fans have gotten used to fairly noncompetitive matches to open the tournament. Team Canada walked in and beat Germany, as expected, by a significant margin of six goals. Finland, another medal contender, took down ninth- ranked Latvia, 5-1. The later games were expected to be more competitive, with Sweden taking on the Czechs and Russia taking on Slovakia, though even those could get fairly lopsided.

The first day is never much for drama. Canada hasn't lost an opening day game since 1998, when they lost 3-2 to Finland in Finland. That year was Canada's worst ever at the World Juniors, as the country finished eighth, ending a five-year run at the top with a tremendous thud: They even lost 6-3 to Kazakhstan in the seventh-place game. In the 2000s, the routine started to emerge: The earlier in the tournament a game was, the greater the chance it would be a blowout. The WJCs open with a whimper rather than a barn-burner.

Does it have to be this way? No. But the IIHF can't really change things up too much. Having 10 countries involved is about right. Sure, the gap between best and worst is significant, but it reduces the amount of teams that have to play at the lower levels that are complete money losers for the IIHF (they're funded by the top level championships), and having the top-drawing teams play them every year allows those games to sell out easier than they would if they structured the tournament differently. It doesn't make for great TV but fans in the markets seem willing to put up with the bother.

In Canada's 9-3 win over Germany, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins had five points, and he and Jonathan Huberdeau, with Mark Scheifele riding shotgun, looked like a trio of NHL players playing against average teenagers, which is exactly the reality. Behind RNH's line, however, the problems were greater.

It wasn't until the third period that Canada really was able to shut down the German counterattack, as they had given up a fair amount of shots and chances early on. Canada's defense was allowing cross-ice passes both on the power play and at even strength, and it had trouble with Germany's cycle game. Germany has some fairly talented players, and young 17-year-old Leon Draisaitl truly impressed with his passing and skating ability.

Meanwhile, Finland, known for dominating the shot clock (but not scoring a high number of goals), outshot Latvia, 44-12. It was a much more complete win than Canada's win over Germany in that regard, although, the game arguably hurt Finland more.

Winger Miro Aaltonen, who had two goals and an assist, was lost for the tournament with a suspected broken ankle. It's a significant blow, as any injury that occurs from here on in means the player can't be replaced. Finland's down a middle-of-the-lineup winger, which isn't crippling, but it isn't a good omen. Losing a player like that to a freak injury in a game you're dominating is very frustrating, much more so than playing sloppy but still winning handily as Canada did.

The Good: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jonathan Huberdeau, Mark Scheifele, and Ty Rattie were the four best Canadian players offensively, while veteran Scott Harrington played the best of Canada's D. Leon Draisaitl, Tobias Rieder (first game since November), and Leon Pfodrel were the best Germans, and if they continue to play like that, Germany has a real chance to stay in this tournament. For Finland, it was all about Joel Armia, Rasmus Ristolainen, Olli Maatta, Markus Granlund and the injured Aaltonen.

The Bad: Latvia's entire performance was a negative. Germany had a few awful moments, but no one truly stood out for awfulness ... the pairing of Max Meirandres and Stephan Kronthaler did get exposed for a fair bit. For Canada, more has to be expected of players like Dougie Hamilton, and Mark McNeill's fill-in role for Boone Jenner was notably lacking. J.C. Lipon had a below-average game as well, but in general, the Canadian defense was both passive and out of synch.

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