In game defined by McTavish’s stellar performance Canada puts forth more cohesive effort

Canada's Mason McTavish (23) and Joshua Roy (9) celebrate a goal against Slovakia during second period IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship action in Edmonton. (Jason Franson/CP)

EDMONTON — Mason McTavish had four of a kind.

The Canadian captain scored four consecutive goals — including a second-period hat trick — and each one of them were darts, as one day after opening the 2022 World Junior Hockey Championship with a nervy win over Latvia, Canada thrashed Slovakia 11-1 at Rogers Place on Thursday night. The host country sits atop the Group A standings with two more games to go in the preliminary round.

For the second straight contest, Connor Bedard opened the scoring, finishing off a beautiful give-and-go play with McTavish. After that, McTavish changed roles from set-up man to finisher, filling the net and chasing a bit of history. A bunch of Canadian players — including McTavish’s linemate — have scored four goals in a world junior game, but nobody had ever bagged a handful.

“Connor had four in December (before the tournament was cancelled) and he was aware after that he was one away (from the Canadian record),” McTavish said. “So he knew, I didn’t even know, then he told me. Him and (left winger Brennan Othmann) were trying to get me five.”

There’s been a lot of talk around this tournament about players who aren’t here. Surely the overmatched Slovaks would have done better had the top two picks in the most recent NHL draft — Montreal Canadien Juraj Slafkovsky and New Jersey Devils pick Simon Nemec — not taken a pass on the WJC. As for Canada, it wasn’t a huge surprise the likes of Owen Power, Kaiden Guhle and Shane Wright opted to skip out in favour of keeping their focus on training for the start of NHL camps. McTavish — who played in the NHL, AHL, Olympics and the Memorial Cup final last year — appeared to be a prime candidate to follow suit. Instead, he eagerly suited up in Canada’s colours to try and chase down a gold medal.

“He’s an NHL player,” said coach Dave Cameron. “I don’t think anybody is surprised by what he brings to the ice, but what really impresses me is his attitude. He has no ego, he probably had every reason in the world not to come to this tournament just because of the timing of it and he’s fully engaged in it and obviously his performance tonight was outstanding.”

McTavish, who finished the night with six points, certainly showed off the hands that made him the third-overall pick in the 2021 NHL Draft. His first goal, which made it 6-0 Canada, came on a play that was as close to a 4-on-0 as you’re likely to see in a high-level hockey game. When defenceman Donovan Sebrango picked off a Slovakian slap-pass right in front of the Canadian net, it sent a bunch of white sweaters charging the other way. Sebrango head-manned the puck to McTavish, who didn’t get overwhelmed by his passing options and, instead, just fired the puck into the net.

Next up, the Canadian captain danced out of the corner, went to his backhand and pulled a roof job. For his final tally of the frame, McTavish followed linemate Joshua Roy’s instructions as Roy pointed at the net with his stick on their 2-on-0 with a clear, “take the shot” message. McTavish did just that, giving his team a massive 8-1 lead in the process.

His final tally came when Othmann picked off a pass in the Slovak zone and hit McTavish — who was wide open — for yet another golden chance he made good on.

“They were looking for me all game, it felt like,” he said of his teammates.

While the game was ultimately defined by the stellar performance of the team’s top centre, it’s notable that some players deeper down the depth chart contributed, too. And those goals — a breakaway snipe by fourth-liner Will Cuylle, who then set up Othmann for a killer one-timer — came in the first period before this turned into a laugher.

Othmann was playing his first game of the tournament after sitting out the contest — a first in his hockey life, he said — versus Latvia on Tuesday. By virtue of being on this team, every Canadian player is a high-end talent. That said, in this setting, there’s a new hierarchy on the squad and it’s still critical for players in supporting roles to shine.

“We’re deep from our first line to our fourth line,” said Othmann, who wound up playing with Bedard and McTavish in the third after starting on the fourth unit. “It doesn’t matter who’s in, who’s out, everyone is contributing in some way.”

The cohesion Canada showed was a welcomed sight for Cameron. It’s not as though the team was bad, by any stretch, in the opener, but it certainly appeared out of sync at times. That was not the case against Slovakia, as the breakouts were cleaner and the passes crisper all over the ice.

“I thought we were much better,” Cameron said. “I thought we were faster today and that was simply because we did a much better job moving the puck. When your team knows where the puck is going it naturally plays faster.”

Of course, most of the time the puck was moving toward McTavish. And after Bedard informed him that he was one away from the record, McTavish quickly latched onto the idea that it would be pretty cool to leave a lasting legacy at the tournament he so badly wanted to be a part of.

“He told us he wanted five,” Othmann said with a grin.

No doubt. But the real reason he’s here isn’t to break new ground for Canada; it’s to do what so many Canadian teams in the past have done before this one.

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