BUFFALO, N.Y. – When he’s playing for the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles in the QMJHL, you won’t often see Drake Batherson standing in front of the net looking for deflections. Quite the contrary.
“Oh my, he’s a sniper,” said Canadian forward Maxime Comtois, who plays against Batherson regularly. “In our league, he’s getting snipes from the half wall.”
But when Batherson made Team Canada’s roster against steep odds this December – more on that in a moment – his coaching staff asked him to take on a new role, planting himself in front of the opposition net on the power play to try and tip point shots.
So, Batherson got after it, making sure to spend extra time during practice working on getting his stick to the puck and redirecting shots into the back of the net. The result for the 19-year-old at the world junior hockey championship? A tournament-best seven goals over six games, including the hat trick he scored Thursday in Canada’s dominant 7-2 semifinal victory over the Czech Republic.
“I never really played that position before until this tournament,” Batherson said. “It’s new – but I seem to be liking it right now.”
Batherson’s scoring touch is something else considering he isn’t even supposed to be here. He was never a top prospect growing up playing minor hockey, and wasn’t drafted until the sixth round of the QMJHL draft in 2015, the second year he was eligible.
It was the same story when Batherson was first eligible for the NHL draft in 2016, as he was passed over completely and had to wait until last year’s draft to be taken in the fourth round (121st overall) by the Ottawa Senators.
“I was a smaller guy growing up through midget and bantam. I knew I was going to grow. So, I just kept working,” Batherson said. “I was just lucky to even get picked last year. I’m very thankful to Ottawa for choosing me. No matter what round you get drafted in, you’ve just got to show up to camp and give it everything you’ve got.”
But even after being selected by the Senators Batherson wasn’t invited to Canada’s summer selection camp for this tournament, and wasn’t even a consideration to his country’s management group until less than two months ago.
“To be honest, I didn’t see him much last year,” Canadian head coach Dominique Ducharme said. “Maybe I saw him once and that was it. I thought he was a good player but to be where he is now, I didn’t expect that. He had a great start to the season. That’s really where he got onto our radar.”
Ducharme said Batherson’s play for the QMJHL team in this November’s Canada/Russia super series was what earned him an invite to Canada’s final selection camp in December. Even then, the American-born, Canadian-raised Batherson was a long shot to make the team and represent Canada on the international stage for the first time in his life.
“He came in, had to fight for a spot until the last moment, but we could see from one day to the other he was always getting better, adjusting. He’s a smart kid. He was working hard and he’s got great skills,” Ducharme said. “He just kept going, even into the tournament. He’s getting better from one game to the other.”
And now here he is, scoring three crucial goals that helped propel Canada past the Czechs and into Friday’s gold medal game against Sweden.
“It’s a little different than most players, for sure,” Batherson said of his journey. “At the start of the year, it was one of my goals to get an invite to this and after the super series I think I showed them what I’ve got and I got the invite. Coming into camp I just wanted to work as hard as I could and I ended up making the team. It’s a dream come true to be here.
“I think my time has come now and I’m really showing the player I’ve become.”
So, there’s your feel-good Canadian story from these world juniors, which culminate Friday with Canada playing for gold. And here are your takeaways from a thorough Canadian victory over the Czechs.
An early scare
A focus for Canada’s defence Thursday had to be containing Czech standout Filip Zadina, who came into the night as one of the tournament’s top scorers. But that didn’t go so well early, as Zadina carried the puck into Canada’s zone just six minutes in, made a series of nifty moves to shake Canadian defender Kale Clague, and wired a shot through Carter Hart’s glove side to open the scoring.
And the Czechs nearly made it a two-goal lead moments later when Martin Necas was looking at a wide open Canadian net on a power play, but couldn’t settle down a bouncing puck and misfired off the crossbar.
The game went in a very different direction from that point forward, but for the first 15 minutes of the night Canada was struggling to find its rhythm.
“We had a tough start a little bit. That was the first time we were coming back from behind in the tournament,” Comtois said. “I think we just refocused ourselves. For the first time, we had a little bit of adversity, but coming from behind we just kind of regrouped.”
Scoring chances didn’t come easily for Canada in the early going as the Czechs were especially mindful of their defensive play, often not even sending a fore-checker into Canada’s zone, preferring to build a wall on their blue line and challenge the Canadians to penetrate it. That made five-on-five opportunities difficult to come by, but the Canadians were deadly once they got on the power play.
Canada earned a man advantage late in the first, and a minute into it Clague found Sam Steel who put a one-timer past Czech goaltender Josef Koernar to tie the game. The Czechs took another penalty in short order, and, moments later, Canada was celebrating again, as Batherson tipped Cale Makar’s point shot into the back of the Czech net.
Those two power-play goals turned around what was shaping up to be a troubling opening period for Canada, and it was a similar story midway through the second when the Czechs took another penalty and Canada earned another goal with the man advantage. Again, it was Batherson tipping a puck past Korenar in front of the net. And again, it came off a Makar point shot.
“He kind of had a magnet for the puck today, and put it on his stick,” Makar said of Batherson’s deflections. “I’ve seen him a few times in practice tipping a few on each side and, obviously, he’s meshing on the power play with all of us. Having a guy in front who’s able to tip pucks that consistently is pretty special.”
Midway through the second, the rout was on as Canada finally started putting some pucks past Korenar on even strength. Comtois got it started, taking a Brett Howden feed in front of the net and scoring his fourth of the tournament, and Jordan Kyrou added another minutes later, waiting out a sprawling Korenar before flipping the puck over the Czech netminder for Canada’s fifth goal.
The game was predominantly played in the Czech zone from there as the Canadians found another gear and kept unrelenting pressure on their opponents. Batherson completed his hat trick with three minutes left in the second, chasing Korenar from the net as the Czechs turned to back-up Jakub Skarek in net.
“I think today we just wanted to come out and do anything we can to get the win,” Batherson said. “I was lucky enough to score a few goals. Me and my linemates are just continuing our chemistry as the tournament goes on.”
The third period was essentially played as a formality but Canada still pressured throughout, potting a final goal as Boris Katchouk roofed one from the slot. The Czechs got one of their own in the third as Zadina scored his second of the night to continue his blazing tournament. But it was all Canada over those final two frames, as they finished the night outshooting the Czechs, 39-20.
In good health
Ducharme indicated Thursday afternoon that he may taper off minutes for some of Canada’s walking wounded if his team had the game in hand, but the only Canadian whose ice time decreased significantly in the third was Katchouk, who played 11 minutes over the first two frames and less than three in the third.
The Canadian forward took a point shot off the foot in front of the Czech net early in the first period, and had all kinds of trouble getting off the ice, but Katchouk returned shortly thereafter and it would be very surprising if he missed the gold-medal game.
Meanwhile, defenceman Victor Mete made his return to the lineup, playing 21:24 after missing Canada’s previous two games due to a lower-body injury suffered late in the outdoor game against the Americans.
“Feeling pretty good – I’m back to 100 per cent, I feel like,” Mete said. “It’s pretty difficult, obviously, to come back here after not being on the ice for three or four days, but I was able to get on the ice yesterday for practice and kind of get back into it. And then played the game today. So, I’m ready for tomorrow.”
Canada now faces a quick turnaround ahead of Friday’s gold-medal game, which begins about 20 hours after this semifinal ended. Sweden awaits, after defeating the host Americans in Thursday’s earlier semifinal, 4-2. Sweden was outshot in that game, 31-20, and took eight penalties, but goaltender Filip Gustavsson was terrific, keeping the Americans off the board until late in the game.
The Swedes are undefeated in the tournament and had a much tougher road to the gold-medal game than the Canadians, earning a narrow 3-2 win over Slovakia in the quarter-finals before topping the U.S. Canada, meanwhile, has played three overmatched opponents in a row since falling to the U.S. outdoors, defeating Denmark, Switzerland and the Czechs by a combined score of 23-4.
But the Canadians know a tough test lies ahead of them.
“They’re a high-skilled team – they’re very fast,” Comtois said of the Swedes. “We’ve got to be careful with our puck management. We’ve got to keep the game simple and we’ve got to play like we did all tournament. Keep it hard and keep it short. Try to roll all four lines. Bring pucks to the net. If that happens it’ll probably go our way.”