The 2014 world hockey championship began with a shootout loss to France and ended with a gut-wrenching defeat to Finland in the quarter-finals. It marked the fifth straight year Canada lost in the quarter-final.
"Everybody knows the challenges coming into this tournament, and our expectations are still the same: to win the tournament," coach Dave Tippett said. "And when you don't win the tournament, it's frustrating."
But in an Olympic year and with a mix-and-match team of veteran second- and third-liners and young players who could be stars someday, this was a Team Canada that Tippett was satisfied with for accomplishing the goal of getting better game-by-game.
Joel Ward gained international fame with his scoring touch and affable admission he had never been to Europe before. Cody Hodgson got to show what he might be able to do as an NHL left-winger. And Mark Scheifele, Jonathan Huberdeau and Sean Monahan showed some growth that could prove worthwhile in future tournaments.
The loss to France set all of that in motion.
"I got a text right after the game from Dave King, who's been at a lot of these tournaments," Tippett said of the six-time Canadian world-championship coach and two-time assistant. "We were all sour about losing in a shootout, and his text was 'Great result. Go to work.' And that was exactly it."
Tippett shared that message with assistants Paul Maurice and Peter DeBoer. He didn't have to tell the players because they already got the idea.
"After that game, we had the attention span of the team, that how hard this was going to be, especially our young players," Tippett recalled.
Tippett saw his team take a "big step forward from there." A slow start gave way to a third-period offensive explosion against Slovakia, then the scoring came sooner and Canada held on to beat the Czech Republic.
Blowouts of Denmark and Italy were to be expected, even if they weren't masterpieces. Tippett figured his players just wanted to get the Italy game over with and move on to the next one.
That next one was an entertaining showdown with Sweden that Ryan Ellis won in overtime on a patient passing play by Scheifele.
"The Sweden game I was really proud of our guys the way we hung in there," Tippett said. "That was a big win for us."
Beating Norway in a tight one two days later clinched first place in the group, but most importantly to Tippett it was a game that didn't let his players slip into bad habits.
That victory — Canada's sixth in a row — happening in regulation, combined with Latvia's loss to Switzerland, lined up the quarter-final matchup against Finland. Had the Canadians put up the same kind of effort against Belarus, Latvia or the United States, they could still be playing.
But a couple of ill-timed third period mistakes led to a blown lead, elimination and a time-honoured hockey lesson.
"How important it is to play all the way through three periods in these single-elimination games," alternate captain Kyle Turris said. "Anything can happen."
At this tournament, the pattern has been far too similar in recent years for Canada.
A 5-1-1 preliminary round in 2013 gave way to a shootout loss to Sweden, just as 6-0-1 in 2012 led to a one-goal loss to Slovakia. In 2011 Canada won all five of its group-play games before losing by a goal to Russia, and it wasn't that close in the last Olympic year, a three-goal loss to Russia.
This was a different cast of characters than each of those, and these were different circumstances for general manager Rob Blake and his staff and then Tippett and his.
"This year was certainly a challenge because of when the tournament started and the NHL season ending when it did," Tippett said. "So there was certainly a challenge that way this year with players being off for three weeks. The tournament started later because of the Olympic break."
That made it difficult to attract stars. In 2010, Corey Perry was the only gold-medal-winning Olympian back, and this team had none.
But like in 2006 (Sidney Crosby, Patrice Bergeron, Mike Richards and Brent Seabrook) and 2010 (John Tavares and Matt Duchene), the 2014 Canadian world-championship team could offer a glimpse of 2018 if NHL players play in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Nathan MacKinnon is on track for the world cup of hockey, and Huberdeau and Morgan Rielly might join him.
Unlike Russia, which has seven Olympians back from Sochi trying to make up for that flame out, Canada didn't bring a team to Minsk that was expected to be dominant. For a while, it was, but that wasn't much consolation in the moments after losing to Finland.
"There's high expectations for this country, and we had a team that played really well the whole tournament, finished first in our division," captain Kevin Bieksa said. "Obviously the expectations were to go a little bit further, so we're disappointed."
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