Rarely used Tyler Steenbergen lifts Canada to world junior glory

Canada broke a 1-1 tie late in the third and added an empty netter to get a 3-1 win over Sweden and claim the gold at the World Junior Hockey Championship.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — It was the third period. Tie game. Gold medal on the line. As the clock bled past two minutes remaining, Canadian captain Dillon Dube sat on the bench and thought to himself, “Overtime starts now. We’ve got to bear down.”

He’d been here before. Exactly a year prior in the same game, when the tie extended into actual overtime, and then a shootout, which is where Canada fell short of gold by a single goal.

Dube had been giving any advice he could from that experience to his many teammates who had never been through it before. On the bench during play, in the dressing room between periods, to linemates on the ice — any chance he could get to relay his experience.

So, when he decided it was time to treat the final two minutes of the third like it was sudden death, he turned his back to the play and started yelling just that at his teammates. And that’s when the building erupted.

“Right when I’m saying it, Steener scored — it was unbelievable,” a delirious Dube said after Canada beat Sweden, 3-1, to win gold at the 2018 world juniors. “It was probably the best feeling I’ve ever had.”

“Steener” is Tyler Steenbergen, Canada’s 13th forward. He’s scored more than a goal a game for the Swift Current Broncos in the WHL this year, but on Team Canada, he didn’t play much — the odd man out on a team built with incredible depth.

That was the idea when this group was put together. There were no stars, no standouts. It was a forward group that didn’t boast a single top-10 NHL draft pick, the first time that’s happened on Team Canada since 1979. Canada merely had four lines that could all do their part.

And that meant Canada scored goals by committee throughout the tournament. After six games, 12 different forwards had found the back of the net. Drake Batherson had four; Sam Steel and Brett Howden had three; six others had two. Only a lone forward didn’t have one.

It had more to do with role than ability. Steenbergen rarely played, and the gold medal game was no exception. He saw the ice for only 32 seconds in the first period, less than three minutes in the second. But as the clock ticked down in the third, and Dube started talking on the bench, he was in exactly the right place at exactly the right time.

As Canada cycled the puck, Steenbergen snuck behind the defence, skating off the boards and to the left of Sweden’s net. Connor Timmins — perhaps Canada’s best defenceman at the tournament — saw him there, directing a perfect pass onto the blade of Steenbergen’s stick. Then, in a heartbeat, he was leaping into the arms of teammates after scoring the biggest goal of his life.

“Timmer made an unbelievable pass through about two guys. At that point, all I needed to do was get my stick on the ice and tap it in,” Steenbergen said. “And after that happened, I just kind of blacked out. I still don’t really know what happened.”

What happened was Steenbergen won the game, and Canada won its second gold medal in the last four world juniors. It was the culmination of a team built around speed, depth and synergy. And for a role player like Steenbergen — so seldom used in this tournament — to score the winning goal was almost too fitting to be true.

“You know what, I think that explains everything,” Dube said. “It sounds so cliché saying four lines deep, but it really shows that. I couldn’t be happier for any other guy to get it.”

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Off to the races

Long before Steenbergen’s golden moment, during a frenetic first period, Sweden was outplaying Canada.

Both teams came charging out of the gates, as you’d expect from teenagers in a game of this magnitude. It was a dizzying 20 minutes of hockey with plenty of scoring chances at both ends and a bevy of loud collisions, as Canada played very physically and Sweden strung together a number of pretty passing plays.

The Canadians thought they’d opened the scoring about midway through the opening frame, as Dube shovelled home a puck amidst a scrum in front Sweden’s crease, but the officials had blown the play dead milliseconds earlier as Swedish goaltender Filip Gustavsson attempted to cover the puck, so the goal stayed off the board. Instead, the game went into the first intermission tied, with Sweden outshooting Canada, 16-9.

“Yeah, that was tough,” Dube said of the disallowed goal. “I think they took it to us a little bit at the start. We were nervous. … It was definitely tight stick gripping. But once we settled in, once we got that first goal, I think we played great.”

The breakthrough

That first goal came off Dube’s stick. Denied his tally in the first, the Calgary Flames prospect made up for it early in the second, taking a slick feed from Jordan Kyrou, bearing down on net with a Swedish defender all over him, and roofing the puck over Gustavsson’s left shoulder.

But later in the period, as Canada began a power play, the Swedish penalty kill sprung a rush in the opposite direction that culminated with Tim Soderlund tying the game by beating Canadian goaltender Carter Hart glove side with a wicked shot off the post.

That sent the game to the third with the teams deadlocked at a goal apiece. And that’s how it remained for the majority of an intense period as the tension in the rink built and built. As the teams traded chances with both goaltenders putting up spirited efforts, overtime felt inevitable. That’s why Dube said what he said on the bench.

But then Timmins found Steenbergen with that pass, and Alex Formenton added an empty-netter moments later to extinguish any hope of a Swedish comeback. And on the Canadian bench, anxious energy turned into pure joy.

“I think it was probably the biggest high I’ve ever had,” Dube said. “The emotions were unbelievable. It was just a great moment.”

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Hart comes through

After he allowed four goals on 35 shots over Canada’s victories in the quarter- and semifinals, Hart said he needed to be better. He said he thought he had another level to reach. He said he’d find it with gold on the line.

And he wasn’t wrong. Hart was tremendous Friday, particularly in the first period when Sweden was all over the Canadians and pressuring relentlessly.

Canada ended up outshot, 36-28, but Hart was strong, coming up with key save after key save and turning away the first 24 shots he faced. He allowed only the lone Swedish goal, and after the game, every single one of his teammates — and his head coach — said Hart was Canada’s best player on the night.

“It’s definitely one of the best games I’ve been a part of in my life,” said Hart, who was in net during last year’s shootout loss to the U.S. “It’s definitely one of the best days of my life right now.”

To the rafters

Plenty was said and written this week about the poor attendance in Buffalo — *ahem* — and in the end the tournament goes down as the least-attended North American event since 2005.

But credit to the Canadian fans, who turned out in numbers Friday for the gold-medal game. The crowd of 17,544 was overwhelmingly behind Canada and charged up from the very start, bringing an energy to KeyBank Center that hasn’t been seen at any point in the tournament.

“It was crazy — they were so loud. I’m losing my voice right now because I was screaming so much,” Hart said. “When we came onto the ice for the opening draw it was really loud and I think that’s what set a tone for the game for us. And we just fed off their energy and at the end of the game when we scored that goal, I’ve never been in a louder building in my life.”

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