As the puck dropped on the IIHF world championships in Kosice, Slovakia, the big question for Team Canada was where was it going to get offence from with John Tavares forced to return to Toronto with an oblique injury.
And after Canada dropped a 3-1 decision to Finland in the tournament, the question remained unanswered.
The Canadians made plays and had opportunities — especially in the second period when they limited Finland to three shots. But overall, Canada’s first and third were weak and the big ice seemed to be an issue as it failed to funnel pucks to the high-danger scoring areas.
Outside of a first period power-play goal from Jonathan Marchessault, Canada shot blanks and started the seven-game preliminary on a losing note.
Finland also beat Canada in the preliminary round last year. This year, Finland featured only two NHLers.
Kaapo Kakko: The young Finn who should go second overall in the June draft scored more than a Canadian team filled with NHLers. Kakko opened the scoring, splitting the Canadian defence and giving himself a breakaway in the first period, and closed the scoring, into an empty net as time wound down.
Goaltending: It should have been a mismatch. Finland goalie Kevin Lankinen is a 24-year-old who was the backup goalie for Rockford of the AHL, getting into 19 games. Matt Murray — also 24 — is the undisputed No. 1 goalie for the Pittsburgh Penguins, with two Stanley Cup rings in his possession.
It wasn’t Murray’s fault. He made 24 saves. The game-winner took a very strange bounce — it seemed lost, high up in the Steel Arena — and then fell right to the side of the crease for Arttu Ilomaki to bang home on a power play. Lankinen, meanwhile, made a huge stop on Anthony Mantha when Canada was pressing to tie late in the game.
Growth factor: Canada featured 16 players playing in their first world championships, perhaps not fully understanding that other countries — even those with few NHLers — can play the game and probably get up to play Canada more than other teams. There’s also a matter of getting used to the large ice surface. The Canadian defencemen were often caught playing too far apart, certainly on Kakka’s first goal. Without Tavares, Canada has three roster spots available. Even with that, Canada has 12 forwards, seven defencemen and three goalies.
Up next: Canada plays Great Britain on Sunday. Yes, Great Britain. Its first appearance in the IIHF’s top group since 1994, and second time in total. The Brits are built almost entirely through players in the top British league – many of them Canadian ex-pats. There’s one notable exception: Liam Kirk of the Peterborough Petes, born and raised in England and drafted last year by the Arizona Coyotes in the seventh round. Also of note, Adam Keefe, brother of Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe, is an assistant coach for Britain.
Rule changes: The IIHF changed its rules prior to puck drop, announcing the gold-medal game would feature sudden-death three-on-three play, tossing out the shootout in the title game. The shootout remains the tie break in the playoffs if the 10-minute 3-on-3 fails to produce a winner. Also, the IIHF will re-seed teams after the quarter-finals, eliminating brackets. That way the highest seed always gets the lowest seed.
Leafs at the tournament: William Nylander (Sweden), Nikita Zaitsev (Russia), Martin Marincin (Slovakia).
Kevin McGran is a sports reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @kevin_mcgran