Following Canada's disappointing semifinal loss to the United States at the World Junior Championships in Russia, Boston Bruins first-rounder Malcolm Subban has endured mountains of criticism. Devastated fans have scapegoated the teenage goaltender despite his solid performance in net.
Backstopping a loaded team of NHL-ready stars made available for the tournament by the ongoing lockout, Subban was saddled with brutal expectations. He could either deliver Canada's first gold medal since 2009 or return home as a pariah.
Subban finished the tournament ranked fifth in both save percentage (90.84) and goals-against average (2.64). Despite less than spectacular numbers, he fared better than the majority of the competition's netminders.
The 24th overall selection in the 2012 draft was supposed to erase the memories of past Canadian goaltending nightmares. Though he failed to produce a coveted gold medal, he was far from the reason for Canada's semifinal crash.
The goaltender entered Canada's preliminary camp considered to be the kid who could finally end the torturous gold-medal drought. He quickly lost the support of his fickle fanbase with an awful exhibition outing against the University of Alberta, giving up three goals on the first seven shots he faced.
Days later, Canadian head coach Steve Spott made the unpopular decision to name Subban his starter despite Jordan Binnington's superior camp performance.
Nervous Canadian supporters demanded to see Binnington from the very beginning of action in Ufa. Meanwhile, the same fans sought to hammer Subban for every minor slip.
The pro-Binnington mob launched its first major assault on Subban after Canada's tournament-opening 9-3 win over Germany. These fans blasted the Bruins prospect for surrendering three goals to an awful German team with very limited offensive skills.
These fans overlooked the fact that each of Germany's three goals came on major defensive lapses. Lazy Canadian defenders playing with an enormous lead refused to respect the German forwards, who capitalized on the open space afforded to them.
That said, Subban did struggle with shots fired high to his blocker side. The two shots that beat him to the top-left corner would have required exceptional saves, but they were in fact stoppable.
Subban's second outing failed to silence his critics, as he surrendered three goals to lowly Slovakia in the first two periods. He admitted to feeling nervous early in the game, likely as a result of the constant criticism.
His rebound control was problematic early on, but he tightened up his game as time passed. He was spectacular in the second half of the contest, allowing Canada to earn a 6-3 comeback victory. He was stellar late in games throughout the tournament, only allowing one third-period goal in Russia.
The netminder finally delivered a star performance in his third World Junior start.
Against a tough Team USA, Subban was nearly unbeatable, allowing just one goal in a 2-1 victory. He was quick, confident and clutch.
He earned player of the game honors and was the primary reason that Team Canada remained undefeated. He made enormous saves late in the game to stop a furious American comeback attempt.
The following day, he was once again spectacular against Russia. He made 21 saves and allowed just one goal against the highly touted host country led by 2012 No. 1 overall pick Nail Yakupov.
His tremendous athleticism was on display as he finally convinced his country that he deserved the starting job.
Unfortunately for Subban, the Canadian fans would not stand behind him for long. The lasting image of the tournament north of the U.S. border will be Jordan Binnington relieving Subban of his duty midway through the second period of Canada's semifinal loss to Team USA.
Subban surrendered four goals early in the game before making way for Binnington, and those four goals may haunt him for the rest of his life. However, he was hardly at fault for the Americans' surprising dominance.
From the drop of the puck, the United States team controlled every facet of the game. The Americans looked faster, more physical and more cohesive than the all-star Canadian squad.
The Canadian skaters provided no support to their goaltender in the opening minutes, crowding in front of him as USA captain Jake McCabe's shot blasted into the net completely unseen. Subban tried to fight his way through the screen but had no chance to stop McCabe's shot.
Minutes later, Subban suffered deja vu as he was once again screened, and another McCabe shot found the back of the net.
Despite a 2-0 deficit, Subban's goaltending was hardly defective. His body language, however, reflected a deeply frustrated netminder. Perhaps a lack of maturity kept Subban from providing confidence to his teammates in the wake of their awful start, but shrugs were understandable in the wake of Canada's dismal all-around effort.
Team USA's only soft goal came in the second period and spelled the end for Subban.
Down 3-0, he stayed deep in his net, failing to shut down American forward Jim Vesey, who came in from a tough angle. By refusing to step up and close down the angle, Subban let Vesey bank a shot in off the far post to give Team USA a 4-0 lead.
Following the goal, Subban was replaced by Binnington, who will start in Saturday's bronze-medal game against Russia.
The results refused to go Subban's way, and he deserves to bear some of the responsibility for that. He was less than perfect at the World Junior Championships. However, he was exceptional at times in Ufa and never less than solid.
Team Canada's failure to win gold should not rest on his shoulders alone, and fans in Boston should not be scared off by angry rants against him regarding his World Junior shortcomings.
The Belleville Bulls (OHL) goaltender is right on track to become a solid NHL goaltender and certainly displayed the exceptional talent that made him a first-round pick in Ufa.
For now he is a raw 19-year-old, but given a few years to hone his game, he could become a star for the Bruins.
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