Canada set itself up with the best possible path into the medal round at the IIHF World Hockey Championship after clinching top spot in the Helsinki pool with a 5-1 victory over Belarus on Tuesday. It was an important step for a team the desperately wants to avoid a third straight early exit at the tournament.
"Our mindset changes now and we have to win the quarter-finals," said forward Jordan Eberle. "That's kind of been the back-breaker for us the last two years. We've played well in the pool games but we haven't brought it in the quarter-finals.
"This is an important game for us."
Canada has drawn a tough opponent for Thursday's do-or-die game in Slovakia, which won five straight games to finish the round robin. As a result, the Slovaks secured a spot in the 2014 Olympic tournament and now believe they have what it takes to win a medal here.
However, by winning its pool Canada, guaranteed that it won't see the powerhouse Russians before the gold-medal final. Russia has beaten the Canadians four straight years at the tournament — eliminating them in the quarter-finals in 2010 and 2011 and edging them for gold in 2008 and 2009 — and has brought another Olympic-calibre team here.
Canadian coach Brent Sutter wants his players to draw "motivation" and "inspiration" from the two most recent losses to Russia. Eleven members of the team were part of at least one of them.
"There was one thing that they all talked to me about before we came over and it was the fact that they were really disappointed with how it finished up last year and (same for) guys the year before," said Sutter. "Our mindset has to be thinking about the game the right way, using any experiences you've had in the past — whether it's through achieving what you wanted or through disappointments."
Canada has slowly taken flight throughout this tournament and survived a tough physical challenge from Belarus on Tuesday.
Ryan O'Reilly led the way offensively with two goals while captain Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry each had excellent games with a goal and an assist. That was a welcome sign.
"We need that line to be good," Sutter said. "We need Getz and Corey to be the (leaders). They're guys that have won championships and have been on gold-medal teams and we need them to play well for us."
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins also scored while goalie Cam Ward stopped 17 shots for Canada (6-0-1).
Sergei Kostitsyn replied for Belarus (1-6-0), which finished 14th at the world championship for the second straight year.
A fairly chippy game saw Belarus forward Andrei Kostitsyn ejected in the second period after hammering Evander Kane from behind. The Canadian winger stayed down for some time but remained in the game.
Canadian defencemen Luke Schenn and Marc Methot were also kicked out late in the third period for separate questionable hits. That could leave the blue-line short-handed if the IIHF decides to suspend either player.
"I don't know how that will be looked at in either situation," said Sutter.
It was another blowout win where Canada had trouble breaking through early.
The score was 1-1 after a first period that saw O'Reilly score just over two minutes into his return from a lower-body injury and Sergei Kostitsyn reply for Belarus.
Perry made it 2-1 Canada at 9:10 of the second period on a power play after having Getzlaf's shot go in off his skate. A few minutes later, the puck squirted over to Getzlaf after a mad scramble and he knocked it into the empty goal.
It's taken some time for both Anaheim Ducks forwards to find their groove after taking a couple weeks off following the NHL regular season. The break was particularly hard on Perry, who battled a flu bug prior to coming over to Europe and lost 12 pounds.
"I think I'm back to normal," he said. "I feel like I'm protecting the puck a little bit more and holding on to it a little bit more, which is my game down low. That's what I've got to do to be effective.
"Hopefully, I'll just keep getting stronger as time goes on."
It's the plan Canada has hoped to follow all along.
Even though it's gone perfectly so far, no one seemed to be getting overly excited just yet. A year ago, the team went a perfect 7-0 through the round robin before losing 2-1 to the Russians in the quarter-finals — an experience that has stuck with the players who lived through it.
"You don't get a trophy for winning the pool," said Eberle. "It all counts in the games to come."
They will all be filled with pressure. Canada needs three straight victories to come home with gold for the first time since 2007 and there seems to be a belief among the players that they've got what it takes to accomplish that goal.
"We've got everything," said O'Reilly. "We've got big hitters that can put the puck in the net and we've got smart skilled playmakers. We've got a great lineup.
"For us it's about playing together and playing all on the same page."
Notes: Duncan Keith had two assists and leads Canada with 11 points in the tournament. ... Getzlaf won 10 of 12 faceoffs. ... Eberle celebrated his 22nd birthday. ... Ryan Murray sat out for Canada. ... Belarus had three NHL players: Mikhail Grabovski and the Kostitsyn brothers. ... Announced attendance at Hartwall Arena was 9,140.