By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
At least the World Junior Hockey Championships went out with a bang.
The tournament had some problems during the course of an almost two-week stay in Buffalo. (More on that in a bit.) None of them, though, seemed to matter by Friday night in the KeyBank Center.
Canada and Sweden put on a classic game that featured a level of excitement and ability that was truly worthy of an age-group world championship. No one could turn away for long in fear of missing of a scoring chance, which were many in number but didn’t result in many goals.
What’s more, out of the more than 17,000 in the building, probably at least 16,000 were cheering for Canada. They went home across the Peace Bridge singing the Canadian goal song (Hey Baby!), as Team Canada came away with a 3-1 win.
“It’s unbelievable,” Canada captain Dillon Dube said more than once.
SKILL ON DISPLAY
It didn’t take long to show this would be an entertaining evening. The two teams showed their speed right from the opening faceoff, zipping up and down the ice. After 20 minutes, observers were calling it one of the best periods played in this building this season – and it wasn’t really an insult to the usual tenant, the Sabres.
Dube put Canada on the scoreboard early in the second period with a big-time move. He drove to the net from the left side and got around the Swedish defense. Then he got a good shot off that beat Filip Gustavsson.
Canada had dreams of adding to the lead about 10 minutes later when Sweden drew a penalty. But it was the Swedes who got the goal less than a minute later. Tim Soderlund turned a two-on-two in the Canadian zone into a one-on-none, and beat goalie Carter Hart to the near side with a perfect shot.
From there it was a matter of waiting to see who would get the next goal, and the wait took quite a while. Sweden had the edge in play, finishing with 36-28 edge in shots on the night. But Hart was extremely solid in the net.
“He was our best player,” Dube said about Hart. “He gave us confidence to attack up front.”
Fittingly, the winning goal was a good one. Conor Higgins wound up for a shot from the right point, but spotted Tyler Steenbergen alone on the right side. Steenbergen merely had to change the puck’s direction to go into a vacated net. The goal, which came with 1:14 left, was followed by bedlam in the building thanks to the Canadian fans. We haven’t seen a roar like that for hockey in this town in quite a while.
“Everything single line did their job,” Dube said when asked about the importance of a “third-liner” scoring the title-winning goal. “That explains everything. The cliché is that we’re four lines deep, but this really showed that.”
“They played a pretty good game, but we took too many penalties. They scored on their chances,” said Sabre draft pick Alexander Nylander of Sweden. Indeed, the six-to-one edge in power plays for Canada was something of a discreet factor in the outcome, even if the Canadians didn’t score on any of them.
Alex Formenton scored an empty-netter 26 seconds later, and the countdown to Canada’s first win in the tournament since 2015 was on. Two years isn’t much of a wait by Buffalo sports standards, but Canada and its fans enjoyed having that championship feeling again.
It’s difficult to guess what the future holds for the tournament in Buffalo. After a roaring success in 2011, attendance took a huge drop this time around. Organizers apparently guessed wrong on the ticket prices, and the brutally cold weather left many happy to stay home instead of going outside for any reason.
Even so, the outdoor game in New Era Field turned into a memorable event, and the final was junior hockey at its best. If this was the last we’ll see of the tournament for some time, well, at least we can hold on to some good memories.