EDMONTON — Teams always say the same thing: At a short tournament, you’re just trying to improve with each game. Well, Canada didn’t just get better in their third contest of the 2022 World Junior Hockey Championship, they got downright spectacular.
Kent Johnson authored the signature moment of the event, Mason McTavish is officially on record watch and Jack Thompson quietly collected three assists as Canada overcame its first deficit of the world juniors to defeat Czechia 5-1 on Saturday night at Rogers Place.
Johnson, the lanky Columbus Blue Jackets prospect and former Michigan Wolverine, accomplished a lot with his lacrosse-style goal that has become entrenched in hockey vernacular as ‘The Michigan.’ With one quick stuff of the puck under the bar, Johnson paid homage to his old college, injected real life into a WJC tournament can use every bit of juice it can get and may have also put a dollar or two in his head coach’s pocket.
“I won the coaches’ poll on who was going to be the first player to do it between him and [McTavish],” Canadian bench boss Dave Cameron said.
Of course, all those things are secondary to the fact that, with precisely 60 seconds to go in the opening frame, Johnson’s outrageous tally provided Canada with a 2-1 lead after it had fallen behind 1-0 by giving up a shorthanded marker to Martin Rysavy just 46 seconds into a five-minute power play. The squad seemed rattled after the shorty, failing to muster much with the man advantage after Jaroslav Chmelar had received the boot for his blindside hit on fellow New York Rangers prospect Brennan Othmann.
And while Canada did manage the get on even terms when McTavish tipped home his first of two goals, Czech goalie Tomas Suchanek was standing on his head and starting to give the sense this could be one of those nights for a Canadian squad that was robbed on a handful of five-star chances.
“Unbelievable,” Othmann said Suchanek’s play early on. “I looked over at [McTavish] and I was like, ‘Okay, we’ve got a game.’
In fact, moments before Johnson’s goal, Suchanek denied him on a one-timer with a positively silly glove save. After the ensuing face-off, though, the puck found its way behind the net, where Johnson swooped in, scooped it up and flung it into the net, sending what was visibly the largest crowd of the tournament into a frenzy.
“It happened pretty quick,” Johnson said. “I think I got a loose puck behind the net and there was no D-man on the right post, so I just went for it.”
The goal-scorer’s reaction was just as animated as that of his teammates and the fans, not just because he’d scored the type of goal he told Othmann in training camp he wanted to try if the opportunity ever came, but because he finally punched through after being denied by Suchanek and going without a goal in Canada’s first two games.
“I would have been pretty pumped for a goal off my skate, too,” Johnson joked.
The night really marked a leap for Johnson’s entire line, which features him on the left side, Tyson Foerster in the middle and Logan Stankoven on the right flank. The only goal from any of those guys previously came from Stankoven in the form of a power-play marker in Thursday’s 11-1 win over Slovakia. While Canada’s had more than enough offence to get by, there was no doubt this second unit had to find another gear and it did just that — Johnson set up Foerster for a beautiful one-timer to close out the scoring — against the best team Canada has seen so far.
“That was a really good step for us,” Johnson said. “We were all over the puck tonight.”
If the second line’s positive results were a welcomed change, it was the same ol’ same ol’ for McTavish on the top line with Othmann and Connor Bedard. While nothing could top Johnson’s eye-popping goal, McTavish made it 4-1 halfway through the game when he took a feed that was deftly feathered by Bedard and broke in alone on Suchanek.
The Canadian captain opened up the goalie’s wickets and slid the puck into the back of the net for his sixth tally in three contests. It’s very possible McTavish still has four games to go in Edmonton, meaning the all-time Canadian record of 10 goals — both John Anderson and Dale McCourt had that many at the 1977 event — is well within reach.
As pretty as McTavish’s second goal was, his first one was a greasy re-direction on a point shot created by Thompson. The defenceman, who is among the nine new faces on this team that were not part of the original Christmastime squad, did a great job of walking the blueline and getting the puck through a maze of bodies toward the net, where McTavish could deflect it home for the type of tally you often need to get things going against a hot tender. That play combined with his other pair of helpers and some key shot blocks underscored why Cameron has been so impressed with Thompson so far.
“He’s just a steady guy,” the coach said. “He made a big play on the [first] goal to get the puck through to the net.”
Maybe Canada was always going to find a way to win this contest. After all, the club did end up with 57 shots on goal. Still, even going through that little bit of adversity — falling behind early, having to really work for it to beat a goalie — can help a team grow and make some progress toward that oft-cited goal of growing an inch with every day.
“Obviously when you have a five-minute power play and you go down 1-0 and don’t end up scoring, it can take the life out of you,” Bedard said. “But I thought we responded really well and it was cool to see our bounce-back.”
The Canadians were also clearly happy to see the impact their play had on a crowd that was much livelier than anything they’d experienced at this somewhat subdued summer event so far. The third period even brought about a few attempts at the wave, a sure sign the excitement is ramping up a bit as Canada will play its final preliminary-round game against Finland on Monday with top spot in the group almost certainly to be on the line.
“That’s real nice,” Cameron said of the support. “It’s quite a commitment for these guys to come in the summer, it’s real good hockey, it’s best-on-best, a lot of guys on all the teams are going to play in the National Hockey League, so it’s an easy decision to come to the games in my opinion.”