BUFFALO, N.Y. — Tyler Steenbergen was Canada’s 13th forward for most of the world junior hockey championship, consistently getting the fewest minutes on the team. It was fitting then that on a Canadian squad head coach Dominique Ducharme built around depth that Steenbergen was the one to score the winner in the gold-medal game.
Steenbergen deflected a long pass from defenceman Connor Timmins into the net with 1:40 left to play to lead Canada to a 3-1 victory over Sweden on Friday. Steenbergen had played only 32 seconds in the first period, then 2:45 in the second and 3:59 in the third.
"It goes to show that Dom can put anyone on the ice at any time and he believes in them," said Steenbergen. "It’s pretty special to be able to know that I’d be out there in those final two minutes and I can put it in the net."
Rarely used in the tournament except on the power play, Steenbergen dropped to one knee and pumped his fist after putting away the winner, pounding on the glass before being mobbed by teammates.
"I think that explains everything," said captain Dillon Dube of Steenbergen scoring when he had so little ice time. "It’s a cliche but four lines deep really means something. I couldn’t be happier for any other guy to get it. And now he’s a champion forever."
Dube also scored for Canada, while Alex Formenton added an empty-net goal 26 seconds after Steenbergen struck. Carter Hart made 35 saves, tying Jimmy Waite and Stephane Fiset for most career wins by a Canadian goalie at the world juniors.
Hart was a fan favourite thanks to his many idiosyncrasies. In particular, his insistence on being the last player to leave the ice after a period and the lengths he would go to insure that he was last off made him an Internet darling.
"To be honest, I don’t really care about how I did as an individual," said Hart. "It’s definitely one of the best games to be a part of in my life. It’s one of the best days of my life."
Loud "Let’s go Canada!" chants began within the first minute of the game. It was the largest indoor crowd of the tournament by a wide margin, with 17,544 fans at KeyBank Center. Poor attendance throughout the event, aside from the record-setting 44,592 fans at the first-ever outdoor game, was an ongoing issue.
International Ice Hockey Federation president Rene Fasel admitted on Thursday that the Toronto-Buffalo corridor has been oversaturated with three world junior championships in the region over the past four years, on top of the NHL’s World Cup of Hockey in Toronto in the fall of 2016. He said that the IIHF would try to spread events around North America more to avoid burning out fans.
Sweden outshot Canada 16-9 in a scoreless first period, but both teams’ speed was on full display with several end-to-end rushes and quick passing plays. This is the sort of team Ducharme and the executives at Hockey Canada envisioned when they began assembling their roster in St. Catharines, Ont., in mid-December: fast, applying constant pressure to their opponents and creating breakaways from turnovers.
That speed was noticeable on Canada’s opening goal of the night. Jordan Kyrou carried the puck down the centre of the ice, passing to Dube on his left wing and he snapped the puck past Swedish goalie Filip Gustavsson at the 1:49 mark of the second.
"The Swedes are good skaters, good skills, it’s harder to be putting that pressure on them," said Ducharme. "But I thought that the more the game went, the more zone time we had, our speed got a little bit better and we could play our game better."
The crowd erupted with cheers after Dube’s goal, singing along to "Hey Baby!" by DJ Otzi, putting extra emphasis on the "ooo, ahhhh" of the chorus.
"Hey Baby!" had been a controversial choice for Canada’s goal-scoring celebration song. The majority of Canada’s players voted for a different song but two players went rogue and submitted the ear-worm on their own. Eventually, it became a favourite of all the players and especially Canadian fans who enjoyed serenading their team after wins.
"It was huge for all of us to have all the Canadians fans down here and supporting us," said Hart. "I know they really took a liking to our goal song. When we scored our goal at the end there everyone was screaming, belting out the lyrics to that song at the top of their lungs."
Sweden’s Tim Soderlund responded with about seven minutes left in the second, breaking down the right wing while Sweden was down a player. He ripped a wrist shot over Hart’s glove hand to tie it 1-1.
The Swedes dominated play in the second, with Canada struggling to get shots on net and forcing too many passes. By the end of the period Sweden had outshot Canada 25-18 even though the Canadians had two power plays in the second.
But Canada began to find its stride again in the third period, picking up speed and putting the pressure back on to Sweden. That faster pace played to Steenbergen’s strengths and his game-winning goal.
"He had some jump in his skating tonight, so I used him a little bit more," said Ducharme. "We all know what kind of goal scorer he is so he only needed one chance. He had it and didn’t miss it."
Trent Frederic scored four times to lead the United States past the Czech Republic 9-3 earlier Friday in the bronze-medal game.
Seven of Canada’s players returned from last year’s team that lost to the U.S. in the shootout of that tournament’s gold-medal game. Throughout selection camp and into the tournament Hart, Dube and other veterans were asked about redeeming themselves after that heart-breaking loss.
"It’s probably the best feeling I’ve ever had," said Dube. "It’s a relief. Going into that third period all I could think about was getting that gold medal."