Ryan Ellis' favorite defenseman growing up was Rob Blake, but it's not because he has a similar physique to the veteran NHLer and Stanley Cup champion. The 6-foot-4 Blake is from the same Simcoe, Ont., town as Ellis' mother and is her favorite player. Ellis has a photo of Blake, himself and the Stanley Cup still hanging up in his room.
But anyone who has seen Ellis on the ice knows that while the 5-10, 184-pounder may not play a big-man's game like Blake, Team Canada's captain has plenty of big-game ability in him. His junior career is a highlight reel full of moments in which he has risen to the occasion when the stakes are at their highest.
No wonder Ellis, the all-time leading scorer among defensemen in the history of the IIHF World Under-20 Hockey Championship, acted like the model of calm following Canada's 6-5 shootout loss to Sweden on Friday -- a defeat that cost the Canadians a bye into the medal-round semifinals but didn't end their stay in the event.
Canada still has a chance to successfully complete its golden redemption mission after falling to the United States in last year's gold-medal game in Saskatoon. Yes, the loss to the Swedes was a setback -- but a minor one since the Canadians had already locked up a spot in the part of the tournament that matters most to them. They're just going to get an early start to their postseason, which begins today at HSBC Arena against Switzerland (3:30 p.m., NHL Network). Finland plays Russia in the second quarterfinal at the arena (7:30 p.m., NHL Network), while the relegation portion of the tournament begins at 3:30 p.m. at Dwyer Arena with two games.
"That's not unexpected at all. The Swedes are a good hockey team," Ellis said of the loss. "There have been a lot of teams to come back and win this tournament [the three games in four days route]. America did it last year, so hopefully we can do that too."
That's all one must remember to understand that the best team ultimately will find a way to emerge victorious. Canada beat the U.S. in the prelims last year to earn a bye into the semifinals but wound up losing the rematch, 6-5, in overtime.
Ellis still remembers it, a loss so painful his Windsor Spitfires roommate, Team USA goalie Jack Campbell, doesn't even bring up the gold-medal game out of respect for him.
Ellis said after helping Canada open the tournament with a 6-3 win over Russia, a game in which he had a bank-shot goal that showed off his hockey intelligence, that his performance in the tournament was immaterial so long as his team succeeded in winning the gold medal. But history shows that he's been a big reason his teams over the years have won more big games than they've lost.
Ellis' 23 points in the world junior championship is two better than Reijo Ruotsalainen's old mark. The Nashville prospect who patterns his game after Detroit's Brian Rafalski has 61 goals and 253 points in 195 career games with Windsor. He and Russia's Dmitri Orlov share the tourney lead for points by defensemen (eight).
He is familiar with elimination games. Windsor overcame a 3-0 deficit in the OHL semifinals against Kitchener last year to win the best-of-7 series en route to a second consecutive Memorial Cup title.
He set a Canadian record for most points by a 17-year-old defenseman in the 2009 worlds and helped set up the play that led to Jordan Eberle's dramatic game-tying goal in the final seconds against Russia, a semifinal the Canadians won en route to their record 15th gold medal.
"He's probably the best player at his position in the world, he's been down this road before," Canada coach Dave Cameron said. "Experience would be the one word I'd use to best sum up how he's going to help [in the medal-round]."
"He's one of the best [defensemen] in my eyes," said Sabres prospect Zack Kassian, Ellis' Windsor teammate who will return to the lineup today following a two-game suspension for the hit that KO'd Czech defenseman Petr Senkerik last Tuesday. "His leadership is phenomenal. His hockey IQ is unbelievable."
Ellis' poise and calm in leading the breakout will be key for the Canadians against a quick Swiss team that likes to pressure the defense as a way of generating offensive chances.
Switzerland went 2-2 in the preliminary round but caught everyone's attention Friday night when it battled the United States hard and came within a goal post of forcing overtime in the third period during that 2-1 loss. The Swiss stunned Russia in overtime last year, 3-2, in the quarterfinals behind goalie Benjamin Conz's 50 saves and Islanders prospect Nino Niederreiter's two goals.
Cameron said Saturday morning he had yet to make up his mind on who will start in goal. Olivier Roy has played three of the four games, beating Russia and the Czech Republic. He had his moments early against the Swedes but wilted down the stretch -- yielding the game-tying goal on an outside shot on the rush that beat him short side.
Mark Visentin made 31 saves in Canada's 10-1 win over Norway. While he was rarely tested in that one, the Niagara IceDogs goalie is one of the best in the OHL as he has the top goals-against average (2.30) and third-best save percentage (.921).
"We re-evaluate our team all the time from goaltenders to pairs to line combinations to specialty teams," Cameron said. "There's not enough napkins sometimes in this profession when you're throwing everything together."
One thing that won't be re-evaluated is Ellis' role on the team.
"Any time you have an elite player you thank your lucky stars," Cameron said.
Playoff/medal round at HSBC
Canada vs. Switzerland, 3:30
Russia vs. Finland, 7:30
Relegation/Placement at Dwyer
Slovakia vs. Norway, 3:30
Czech Republic vs. Germany, 7:30