Team Canada tested by Ukraine, pick up first win of FISU Games

CANTON, NEW YORK – When Team Ukraine stepped off the Winnipeg Jets ice on Monday night with a 5-1 win over the Manitoba Bisons, they proved they could play with Canadian university players. 

The “Hocket Can’t Stop Tour” allowed the Ukrainian men’s U25 team to iron out their details and push Team Canada’s U SPORTS All-Star team in their opening game of the FISU World University Games Lake Placid 2023.

On Thursday at SUNY-Canton, as they fell to Canada 6-1, they proved they could compete more closely than the scoreline suggested. 

“Full credit to Team Ukraine… they pushed us; it’s our first game, so you’re making new standards for the group, and you can’t get new standards if you don’t have a good opponent,” Canada’s head coach Gardiner MacDougall said. “They played hard; they played right to the end, and we had to create a standard to start.”

Team Canada didn’t find their breakthrough until the second period, when Zachary Lavigne barreled in a pass from Justin MacPherson, giving the UQTR forward Canada’s first goal of the tournament. 

Adding to the lead, UNB’s Austen Keating tapped in a pass after StFX’s Liam Hawel finessed his way through the offensive zone to double Canada’s advantage before Concordia’s Tyler Hylland scored on a short breakaway early in the third period. 

Ukraine got themselves on the board through Gleb Krivoshapkin, as the HK Kremenchuk player finished a chance from in close after dumping the puck in behind the goal. He also found the back of the net against the Manitoba Bisons last week. 

Yet, it was as close as Ukraine would make it, as TMU’s Kyle Bollers finished a tip from in close, marking Canada’s fifth, while a breakaway from Matt Struthers, assisted by StFX teammate, Hawel, gave Canada their final goal of the day. 

“We wanted to get a couple on the powerplay there [at the end of the third] to get that clicking for the rest of the tournament,” said Struthers, who had two points. “The group of five [on the powerplay] haven’t played together very often, so to get that one felt good and even better to get the win.”

Backstopped by Dmytro Kubrytskyi, the Ukrainian team didn’t run the pace of play in the game but found their footing on the counterattack while physically imposing themselves on the Canadian team. 

However, as Canada grew as the game went on, Ukraine failed to elevate their level, as Canada skated around them and began to cash in on the mistakes and fragilites of Ukraine’s defence. Despite the 40 saves from Kubrytskyi, it wasn’t enough, as his forwards simply didn’t provide the type of offence needed to beat Canada. 

“The whole goal is to get better, and that was achieved today,” MacDougal said. “It’s a great group we’ve got here; we’ve had a chance to get four practice sessions together, and now one game… getting better is all about getting smarter, adding more intensity and working on our grit as well.” 

A team of top players 

Liam Hawel and Kyle Bollers came into the FISU Games as the two top scorers in U SPORTS and looked right at home on Team Canada. For Hawel, his first time wearing the jersey since representing Hockey Canada at the IIHF U18s; meanwhile, it was Bollers’ debut in red and white. 

Yet, MacDougall and the coaching staff have placed an impetus of hard work on the group that consists of purely star players from across the country. While taking on more minor roles could breed frustration for some, the team seems to all be on the same page at the FISU Games. 

“We have 13 good players at forward, seven good players at defence defenceman, and three good goalies,” MacDougall said. “It’s going to figure itself out,”

Bollers headed the penalty kill and pressed Ukrainian defenders to keep the puck in their zone and as far away from Canada’s goal as possible. His tenacity in the OUA also translated on the forecheck, as he worked the puck up the boards several times before accelerating and cutting inside. 

Meanwhile, Hawel’s slick hands were the day’s theme, as he linked up with linemates Struthers and Keating, with the AUS trio finishing the night with a combined nine shots, three goals and six points. 

“We’ve talked about doing it the Canadian way; it doesn’t matter whose doing what,” Struthers said of the dynamic. “It’s all about the next shift mentality; you get your name called, and you go to represent your country, and if we do that, we’re going to have a lot of success.”

Moving on and the captaincy

While Canada’s opening period didn’t start with the vigour and tenacity the team would have hoped for, they settled into the game and showed noted improvements in every facet. Notably, players took the passing option when entering the offensive zone by the end of the game rather than rushing to drive the puck themselves. 

In net, TMU’s Kai Edmonds wasn’t troubled too much outside of the goal, making 11 stops as Canada outshot Ukraine 46-12. 

What Canada was missing in the first game, however, was a captain — MacDougal wants to wait to see who evolves into the leadership roles before tapping someone to wear the “C,” yet against Ukraine, Canada featured three alternate captains, with Saskatchewan’s Jared Dmyrtiw, X and X

With their opening win secured, Canada’s men’s hockey team travels nearly two hours from Canton, NY, to Lake Placid, where they’ll participate in the FISU Games Opening Ceremony. Despite the long travel, they won’t have much down time, with their next test against Sweden at 1:00pm ET on Friday. 

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