HALIFAX — In what might be the biggest plot twist of the tournament, the gold-medal win didn’t come down to the Connor Bedard show.
While Bedard was held off the scoresheet, Dylan Guenther stole the show – and the gold – by whipping home a pass from Joshua Roy at 6:22 of overtime to give Canada a redemptive 3-2 win over Czechia at the world junior championship on Thursday.
And although Guenther (with two) and birthday boy Shane Wright were the night’s offensive dynamos, everybody wanted to talk about Bedard, who generated chances, produced an amazing diving chip pass and overall was a threat every time he was on the ice.
“Unbelievable performance,” said captain Wright. “I’ve run out of things to say about how unbelievable his whole performance was this entire tournament, how mature he’s been, how much of a good teammate he’s been to every single guy this whole tournament. He’s been incredible. Even though he didn’t get a point tonight, I mean, he’s still by far the MVP of the tournament, still by far the best player of the tournament. He’ll have a pretty good future in hockey, that’s for sure.”
“He wants to win,” said Guenther. “I mean, he’s a winner. I think he’s willing to do whatever it takes to win and obviously (he had a) tremendous tournament, a historic tournament and, (it was) just to treat to play with him get the opportunity to watch him every day.”
Everyone was talking about Bedard except Bedard, of course.
“I don’t want to talk about myself right now, I’m talking about us and what we accomplished,” said the tournament MVP, who finished with nine goals and 14 assists for 23 points, the latter two single-tournament records for a Canadian player.
Bedard’s performance captured the attention of an entire country, and even that of a Hockey Hall of Famer watching from a different country.
“(He’s got) silky-soft hands with incredible hockey sense,” Chris Pronger told Sportsnet via text, after watching the game with his family in suburban St. Louis. “Much like the other great ones, the puck seems to follow him.”
With his performance, Bedard further entrenched his place as the No. 1 draft prospect for this year’s NHL Draft.
Pronger, who won gold as a member of Canada’s world junior team in 1993 and was also a highly touted prospect in junior, feels Bedard will be a star in the NHL – after a short period of adjustment.
“The size and speed of everyone, that is always the biggest change,” he said. “Playing against teenagers vs. men.
“He will be just fine, but adapting to that and understanding that takes some time.”
It speaks to Bedard’s talent that, even on the global stage, even while surrounded by the best players in the world his age and older, every time he touched the puck, fans expected something to happen, especially while being double-shifted in overtime.
And after Canada took a 2-0 lead into the third, it appeared the coronation was on schedule.
A pumped Canada somehow played physically against the larger Czechs, hitting early and often to repeatedly sway the momentum in its favour. The defence and forwards kept the Czech offence to the perimeter, forcing bad-angle shots and turnovers with aggressive sticks. And when the defence-first approach broke down – and it did – goalie Thomas Milic was there to save the bacon and, more importantly, preserve the gold.
Canada was not to be denied on this night, and practically everyone was buying in. A good early indication of this mindset was the sacrifice by defenceman Tyson Hinds, who blocked two shots while killing a penalty before either team had scored.
Guenther’s one-timer from just above the dot on the power play opened the scoring after a nice diving forecheck by Brennan Othmann that kept the puck away from the Czechs. Not only did Othmann keep the possession alive, for good measure, he raced to the front of the net to toss up the big screen to keep Tomas Suchanek from getting a clear look at the shot.
Then, in a Bedard-like charge down the boards in the second, Wright fought through claustrophobic Czech checking down the wing before burying a slick backhander to get his team to 2-0. It was the top highlight – a goal Bedard himself called “ridiculous” – of Wright’s best game of the tournament.
But the Czechs, who stunned Canada on Boxing Day with a 5-2 win in the game that will forever be remembered as the time when the cocky Canadians tried two Michigans in the first period, refused to go down without a fight.
And when Jiri Kulich chipped in a rebound to break Milic’s shutout and Jakub Kos scored off a trickling deflection 54 seconds later with time ticking in the third, it appeared as if Canada was losing steam.
“Right away, (we) obviously (felt) a bit of frustration, I think especially shift after a goal, we go out there and get scored on, and that shouldn’t happen,” Guenther said. “And then in the intermission, though, I mean, we knew it’s a different game, three-on-three, you have to reset and just be ready for the next shift. So that was our mindset, just … (we) didn’t talk about the past or anything that happened. Just what’s next.”
What was next in OT was a missed assignment and a poor line change resulting in an odd-man rush that Guenther put away, meaning the Canadians went from letting a gold slip away to Heave Away — one last, glorious time.
Although the Canadians made it look easy, sweeping through Germany, Austria and Sweden in commanding fashion in the preliminary round before surprisingly dominating the U.S. in the semifinal and eking out a win for the gold, Guenther said that’s not what he’ll remember about this group.
“I think just how much we had to battle,” he said. “I mean, the people from the outside, they think, ‘Well, you know, look at their team. They should have won.’ But, I mean, when you’re in that room, you know how hard it is to win at anything. I think how resilient we were. We lost the first game to those guys and I think we just played as one the rest of the tournament and eventually came on top.”
One of the things coach Dennis Williams will remember is the resiliency of, you guessed it, Bedard.
“I can’t imagine being in his shoes with the amount of attention and pressure that he gets put on him night in and night out,” Williams said. “He’s mature beyond his age out there. And again, at the end of the day, I truly believe the one thing I’ve learned from him is he cares about winning more than anything else.”
Viral moment of the game: We should just rename this the Connor Bedard Viral Moment of the game. This amazing diving chip pass by Bedard to Logan Stankoven in the second is worth the hype: