This year’s Canada-United States showdown on Boxing Day was billed as one of the marquee games of the 2020 World Juniors. To the delight of hockey fans everywhere, the contest exceeded the hype.
Canada emerged with a 6-4 victory over the United States, with 2020 draft-eligible prospect Alexis Lafreniere scoring the game-winner late in the third period.
In case you missed Thursday’s game between the two powerhouses, here are three takeaways.
Lafreniere proves why he’s the best prospect since McDavid
Alexis Lafreniere entered the tournament with all eyes on him, billed as the best prospect since Connor McDavid. There’s no longer any reason to apply any qualifiers to the superstar winger, as he was the best player on the ice by a wide margin during Thursday’s contest.
Initially, it appeared as if Lafreniere’s efforts wouldn’t necessarily be represented on the scoresheet, as he threw two massive hits, then later walked United States defender K’Andre Miller before setting up a goal-scoring opportunity for Joe Veleno in the first period.
Lafrenière is going to make an NHL team very happy one day. pic.twitter.com/2lvSAq6O8K— Yahoo Sports Canada (@YahooCASports) December 26, 2019
Miller is no slouch - in fact, he’s one of the very best skaters in this tournament, boasting tremendous recovery speed, and could graduate to the New York Rangers by next fall. Lafreniere turned him into a pylon.
After Canada trailed 2-0 after the first, the 18-year-old phenom took the game into his hands.
Following Connor McMichael’s goal to put Canada on the board, Lafreniere navigated space perfectly on the power play, dangling the puck like a toy before firing a picturesque pass over to captain Barrett Hayton, who one-timed it into the net to tie the game at 2-2.
Lafreniere outdid himself on Hayton’s second goal of the contest. Entering the zone mid-flight, Lafreniere assesses two defenders in front of him, drops the puck back to Veleno, then receives the pass back as both defenders collapsed on Veleno, cuts toward the net, attracting three defenders before finding a wide-open Hayton for another one-timer on the power play to give Canada a 4-2 lead.
Lafreniere is the truth. pic.twitter.com/AwExrHCaTS— Yahoo Sports Canada (@YahooCASports) December 26, 2019
It was a roller coaster game as the United States proved dangerous on the counterattack, and quickly scored two goals to tie the game 4-4. If simple mathematical analysis proved that momentum isn’t a thing, Lafreniere put a stamp on this point, scoring seven seconds after Shane Pinto notched his second marker of the game.
Miller - who I predicted to make the tournament’s all-star team - made his second major gaffe off the game, tossing the puck across the ice only for it to be batted out of the air by Lafreniere. Showing natural composure in front of the net, Lafreniere corralled the puck and tucked it past Spencer Knight to re-establish the lead with 3:11 left in the third.
🚨 Alexis Lafreniere— Here's Your Replay ⬇️ (@HeresYourReplay) December 26, 2019
5-4 CAN pic.twitter.com/Hn0YBEbrun
Putting a cherry on top of his proverbial sundae, Lafreniere also helped set up Ty Dellandrea’s empty-net goal, which gave Canada an insurmountable 6-4 lead.
Don’t be surprised if we remember this tournament as The Alexis Lafreniere Show.
Daws establishes himself as genuine No. 1 goaltender
Goaltending was considered to be Canada’s main flaw but Nico Daws put this notion to rest on Thursday. Although he surrendered four goals on 32 shots, Daws kept Canada in the game, particularly in the first period as mistakes by returnees Hayton, Veleno and Jared McIsaac gave the United States a 2-0 lead on two power play goals.
Daws didn’t have a chance on either of the United States’ opening two goals. A seeing-eye shot from Zac Jones was expertly tipped in by Shane Pinto - the best forward for the United States on Thursday - for a 1-0 lead. On the second goal, Veleno hung Daws out to dry, failing to clear the zone, while Trevor Zegras made a clever move in the zone then found sharpshooter Arthur Kaliyev, who wired it past an outstretched Daws.
With Canada holding on a 3-2 lead, Daws robbed an unmarked New York Islanders loanee Oliver Wahlstrom in front of the net, and he never cracked under the immense pressure that the United States’ speed and skill presented all game.
Canada give little indication as to who would emerge, but the undrafted Daws, who has been simply outstanding in the OHL, outduelled 2019 first-round pick Spencer Knight and should be its No. 1 goalie going forward.
A game of margins
Lafreniere’s magic would make it appear as if Canada was the significantly better team, but this was as evenly matched as it gets otherwise. It really was a game of margins.
Canada’s veteran players showed nerves from the outset of the game, which dissipated as the contest raged on. Hayton - Canada’s captain - took a careless penalty which led to the opening goal of the game, while McIsaac followed suit with a needless hooking penalty and the United States capitalized again.
Both teams finished with an identical 32 shots, five penalties and three power play goals. It’s entirely possible the United States might rue what could’ve been, as another potential power play marker was ruled off when it was determined that Pinto did not beat the buzzer at the end of the second period. The goal would’ve tied the game at 3 apiece entering the final stanza.
For all that’s been written, there’s nothing eminently predictive from a game between two powerhouses, other than the fact that Lafreniere is coming for everyone and that both teams will need to stay out of the box. There’s no way other teams in the tournament can afford to give Canada or the United States time on the power play, as both proved to be downright unstoppable on the man advantage.
This very well could be a gold medal preview, and there’s ample reason to believe it could be won on the margins, again.
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