Matt Tomkins was prepared for whatever was thrown at him.
The goalie probably wasn’t expecting an early breakaway for China – a fledgling hockey nation that had to fight to be included in its own Olympic men’s tournament – or a penalty shot a few minutes later.
Tomkins coolly turned both aside to steady a wobbly, unconvincing Canada before his teammates eventually responded to that surprising punch in the nose.
Adam Tambellini had two goals, including one on a penalty shot of his own, to go along with three assists as the North Americans survived an initial scare Tuesday to beat China 7-2 in the qualification round at the Beijing Games.
“They put us on our heels,” said Tomkins, who finished with 27 saves. “But that’s a good challenge for me.”
Jordan Weal added two goals and an assist for Canada, which will face Sweden in Wednesday’s quarter-finals. Eric Staal and Jack McBain chipped in with a goal and an assist each, while Eric O’Dell provided the rest of the offence. Maxim Noreau added three assists.
“We needed a few saves,” Stall said. “But we played hard the rest of the way.”
Cory Kane replied with both goals for China, which looked poised for a massive upset in the opening stages.
Jeremy Smith stopped 15 shots in the first period before injuring his left leg. Paris O’Brien made 23 saves in relief for the Chinese, who went winless in four games and were outscored a combined 23-4 in the program’s first Olympics.
“Honoured to throw on the jersey and represent the home nation and my heritage,” O’Brien said. “It’s been awesome, this whole experience.”
The Canadian roster of non-NHLers also beat the China 5-0 in round-robin play, but will need to be a lot better if the country is going to battle for a medal in Beijing.
China’s team at the 2022 Winter Games comprised Kunlun Red Star, a Beijing-based KHL club that’s enjoyed little success since joining the Russian-based league in 2016-17 with an eye toward growing a shallow talent pool.
Of the program’s 25 players, 18 were born or grew up in North America, including 11 with ties to Canada, while one is Russian.
Vancouver native and former NHL winger Brandon Yip, who has Chinese heritage through three of his four grandparents, is the team’s captain. But others such as Smith and Jake Chelios, the son of Hall of Fame defenceman Chris Chelios, had no ties to the country before signing contracts with Kunlun.
The International Ice Hockey Federation, which contemplated replacing China with Norway at the Olympics, ruled those players met residency requirements despite the fact Kunlun had to relocate to the Moscow area the past two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’ll sit down and soak this whole experience in,” Yip said when asked what’s next for Chinese hockey. “We fought hard right to the end.
“Hopefully, we can get our KHL team back here in Beijing, start a big fan base and just go from there.”
Foo, a native of St. Albert, Alta., stopped by Tomkins on China’s penalty shot, said this is just the beginning for the sport in a country of 1.4 billion people.
“China grows quickly in everything,” he said. “There’s rinks going up, tons of them every year.
“And a lot of kids that hopefully are going to pick up a hockey stick.”
Tomkins started a second straight game, while Edward Pasquale, who got the nod in the first two contests, served as the backup.
“Incredible honour,” Tomkins said of wearing the Red Maple Leaf. “We don’t take it for granted.”
The Canadians opened with a great first shift, but were then second-best for a significant stretch. Tomkins was forced to make a save on a Tyler Wong breakaway and Foo’s penalty shot after the forward was slashed by Morgan Ellis.
“They pushed hard,” Tambellini said.
Canadian head coach Claude Julien pointed out some of the early defensive issues simply comes down to ability with the NHL absent because of pandemic concerns.
“Everybody’s got a little bit of a wart in their game,” he said. “It’s about trying to adjust with that and taking advantage of all their strengths.”
Canada settled down and went up 2-0 when Weal scored twice on the power play, including one on a 5-on-3 man advantage.
China got one back Kane stole the puck from an under-pressure Owen Power – the No. 1 pick at the 2021 NHL draft – and roofed a backhand on Tomkins.
The netminder stopped Foo on a couple of shots on a power play before disaster struck for China in the period’s dying seconds.
Smith, who played 10 games with the Colorado Avalanche in 2016-17, stretched to make a save and crumpled to the ice in agony. The American-born netminder had to be helped off without putting any weight on his left leg inside a quiet National Indoor Stadium.
That opened the door for O’Brien, originally from Coquitlam, B.C., to step into the spotlight a second time after stopping 39 shots in Canada’s victory Sunday.
The 21-year-old made some nice saves after the intermission, but was fooled by a weak Tambellini one-timer on another power play that ticked off Chelios.
The son of former Edmonton Oilers general manager Steve Tambellini was then hooked on a break by Chelios, and buried the ensuing penalty shot.
O’Dell stretched the lead to 5-1 on a deflection before China got its second when Kane, a native of Irvine, Calif., scored on a two-man advantage with 59 seconds left in the period.
“They deserve a lot of credit,” Tomkins said. “They gained a lot of respect here.”
The Edmonton native, who plays professionally in Sweden, had to be sharp on a Yip chance and the follow-up rebound nine minutes into the third, but China didn’t really threaten from there.
Staal and McBain scored late, including a fourth power-play goal, as the Canadians advanced on another night where they struggled to put all the pieces together in an event without much runway left.
A veteran of big games in both the NHL and internationally, Staal said the pressure and responsibility of suiting up for a hockey powerhouse – even when it’s not best-on-best – needs to be embraced.
“That’s the best part,” said the 37-year-old. “Having those moments and that opportunity.”
If they don’t seize it Wednesday, Canada will head home minus an Olympic men’s hockey medal for the first time since 2006.
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