HELSINKI – There was no sign of the mounting pressure.
As Canada moved into crunch time at the IIHF World Hockey Championship on Wednesday, it did so amid a calm, easy-going atmosphere at Hartwall Arena. The players were put through a light skate in preparation for Thursday’s quarter-final against Slovakia but admitted afterwards that the heat had been turned up ahead of a must-win game.
“You want to make your country proud,” said goaltender Cam Ward. “You feel like Canada’s going to be watching and you don’t want to let them down. There’s a lot of pressure to perform, but that pressure should bring the best out of you.”
That theory will certainly be put to the test in this one.
The Slovaks find themselves completely unburdened, having already accomplished their stated goal of earning direct entry to the 2014 Olympics by virtue of getting to the playoff round. Anything else they accomplish from here would simply be a bonus.
“It’s a nice feeling,” said captain Zdeno Chara. “(Qualifying for the Olympics) is something that it’s very important for Slovakia, for the people back home and obviously for the sport itself. We are not done yet.
“It’s basically one game, anything can happen.”
Canada enters as the favourite, but has plenty of reason to be wary of its opponent. The Slovaks were stingy in a matchup between the teams to open the tournament — Canada squeaked out a 3-2 victory — and they went on to win five straight games to complete the round robin.
The stakes are also undeniably greater for a group of Canadian players that is looking to make amends for quarter-final losses at this tournament the last two years. They simply have more to lose.
Slovakia seems more than happy to embrace the role of spoiler, with forward Tomas Tatar even suggesting that Canada “will be a little afraid” of his team.
“I think we can win that game,” said Tatar. “It’s going to be hard but every team here is beatable.”
Canada will be short one of its top four defencemen after the IIHF decided to slap Marc Methot with a one-game suspension for his hit on Belarus forward Yevgeni Kovyrshin late in Tuesday’s game. His spot will be taken by 18-year-old prospect Ryan Murray, who keeps finding his way back into the lineup.
Otherwise, there seemed to be an enthusiastic mood among a group that won six of seven round-robin games and has scored more goals than anyone else in the tournament.
“There’s a lot at stake now — you win or go home,” said forward Patrick Sharp. “We’re focused, we’re excited about playing and we can’t wait to get going.”
General manager Kevin Lowe and coach Brent Sutter are both encouraged by the growth they’ve seen in the team over the last couple weeks. It is the youngest group ever sent to this event by Canada, but boasts impressive depth.
The top three scoring lines have all taken turns having dominant offensive games while a defence anchored by Duncan Keith and Jay Bouwmeester seems to have adapted to the larger international ice surface. In goal, there is Ward, now a veteran at age 28 and the man who helped Canada win its last world championship gold in 2007.
No wonder the message from Sutter was so simple: Just play.
“It’s a challenge for us and we look forward to it,” said Sutter. “It’s not about being uptight or any of that. Let’s just go play and play like we’ve been playing.
“We’ve played some pretty good hockey here.”
So have the Slovaks. And under trying circumstances, no less.
The country has struggled mightily on the international scene in recent years — save for a surprise fourth-place finish at the Vancouver Olympics — and arrived here eager to help restore its image as a top hockey nation. It was enough to lure Chara and fellow veteran Miroslav Satan to Helsinki, where they’ve taken a group of youngsters under their wing.
“It’s been nerve-wracking,” said Chara. “A lot of guys have never been in this position before, where you have basically everything on the line. … But that’s something they will get stronger and they will use this in the future as experience.
“Personally I enjoy it. I love playing games like this. It’s absolutely the best, that’s what you play hockey for, that’s what you are dreaming about.”
In many ways, the quarter-final round of the world championship is the toughest of all. The losers go straight home while the winners are assured of at least having a chance to play for a medal. Essentially, it’s the difference between a good tournament or bad tournament.
With a number of players on this Canadian team eyeing a spot on the 2014 Olympic squad, this kind of experience could be invaluable. Pressure is an unavoidable part of hockey on the world stage.
“It comes with the territory,” said Lowe. “And it’s all about how you respond to it.”