MALMO, SWEDEN – Bringing Griffin Reinhart to the World Junior Hockey Championship, even though he would miss the first three games due to a suspension, was a major gamble. And it almost backfired.
Without the big Edmonton Oil Kings defenceman in the lineup, Team Canada stumbled in a shootout loss to the Czech Republic and then trailed Slovakia 3-1 late in the second period of its third roundrobin game. A loss to the Slovaks would have meant Canada's hopes of topping Group A would be dashed and a date with the Russians in the quarter-finals would be looming. But Canada found a way, barely, to beat Slovakia.
Reinhart then returned against the United States on New Year's Eve, solidifying the blue line and helping Canada beat their North American rivals and secure an easier quarter-final opponent. Reinhart then scored the opening goal – the first time Canada struck first in eight games, including three pre-tournament ones – and added an assist in a 4-1 win over the Swiss. He was named player of the game. Meanwhile, the United States was eliminated by Russia.
All the sudden, the decision to bring Reinhart is looking mighty good.
"The only people questioning it was everybody on the outside," insisted head coach Brent Sutter. "We didn't have any question on the inside. After assessing where we were throughout the country with our back end, it became very clear to myself, after being told what I was told from the scouts' side of it, that we had to take that chance of him not playing in the first three games and having him for perhaps the last four and that's how it's going to work out."
Reinhart, the son of former NHL defenceman Paul Reinhart, is the whole package. That's why the New York Islanders made him the fourth overall pick in the 2012 NHL draft. And he certainly seems motivated to repay the trust Sutter has shown in him.
"All year, it was pretty unpredictable whether they were going to take him," said Sam Reinhart, Griffin's younger brother and Canadian teammate. "You know everyone in the locker room is happy they did now and he's probably the happiest guy here, too."
Griffin Reinhart's return had an immediate impact on defence partner Mathew Dumba, who was forced to carry a large load in the first three games, despite suffering from an energy-sapping virus. (If Dumba had been forced to miss a game, that would have left Canada with just five defenceman, yet another possible pitfall of bringing Reinhart despite the suspension.) Dumba's game was a bit off at times early in the competition, but he has meshed well with Reinhart in the last two outings.
"It's huge having Griff here," said Dumba, who played 13 games with the Minnesota Wild this season before being loaned to Hockey Canada. "He's a veteran player. He's that calming presence definitely on the back end. I love playing with him. He makes it real simple for me out there. I always know where he is and vice versa."
Reinhart's presence has had ripple effects throughout the entire roster.
"He's meant a lot," said forward Curtis Lazar, "and you saw his offensive side today, but also in the D zone, he uses that big body to get the puck out of pressure and makes that first, crisp pass. We're really glad to have him back in the lineup."
"It's been huge," said Sam Reinhart. "That experience he brings, the level of play, he just calms everything right from the forwards back to the goalie, just a calming presence on the ice."
As for Griffin Reinhart himself, well, he is pretty happy with what he's brought to the table thus far.
"Felt better that game," he said, moments after the quarter-final victory, "starting to get my legs under me and the team played well. Just skating, starting to get my hands back, just more comfortable on the ice. It's different practising, situations are different in games. The States game went well and it's only getting better."
Reinhart's calm demeanour on the ice is replicated off it.
"I've known Griff for a quite a while and he's not the loudest guy in the dressing room, but when het gets on the ice, he loves to control the game," said Lazar, Reinhart's teammate in the Western Hockey League.
"I sort of have the inside track on Griff and he's not going to show much emotion, but it's good to have him and he's really happy with the performance he's put out the past couple of games."
Was the desire to make an impact eating him up while he waited for a chance to contribute earlier in the tournament?
"Oh yeah," Lazar said, "no doubt."
* Charles Hudon (shoulder) and Mathew Dumba (knee/leg) did not take part in the practice; head coach Brent Sutter described the absences as "maintenance days" and said both players are expected to be the lineup on Saturday.
* It was Canada's first practice at Malmo Arena, which is much larger than the Malmo Isstadion where the team played its previous five tournament games; "It is what it is," Sutter said. "The game is played on the same sized ice no matter where you're playing." In conversation with Nabil Karim after the quarter-final win on Thursday, Sutter said moving rinks was akin to playing a "road game." The Finns have been based at Malmo Arena all tournament.
* Sutter was asked for his take on facing Finland: "I see a hard-working team. I see a team that's very structured. I see a team that's going to play some North American hockey. They're a gritty group. They're getting some decent goaltending and they got three forwards on their team that are as good as any forwards in this tournament. They're going to come and they're going to come hard and we have to be ready for it."
* Here is a link to Canadian players talking about Friday's practice and facing Finland: http://bit.ly/1gwWvc4