Connor McDavid (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
Connor McDavid has been improving in the World Junior Championship with each passing game and, judging by the way the Russians have come on, will have to be even better if Canada hopes to win its first gold medal in six years in this event.
With exactly five minutes and 20 seconds remaining in Canada’s 5-1 manhandling of Slovakia Sunday night, Connor McDavid collided at center ice with a Slovak player and fell to the ice. He got up, grabbed both sides of his head, struggled to get back to the bench and didn’t see the ice for the rest of the game.
For the Canadian side, it could have represented a disaster. But there McDavid was after the game answering questions and not even hinting there was anything doubt concerning his status for the gold medal game against Russia Monday night. No quiet room, no concussion, no need for worry.
“I was fine. I was fine, no problem,” McDavid said after the game. “Yes, I will play tomorrow.”
That had to be the best news Hockey Canada could have heard, since McDavid, who has been getting better and better with every passing game, was Canada’s best player by a significant margin in the semifinal win. Yes, Nic Petan’s three goals were the cause of hats raining onto the ice surface, but McDavid’s puck possession skills and uncanny vision were on full display. And even though he has had his moments, Sunday night marked the first time in the tournament that we have seen the Connor McDavid who was leading the Ontario League in scoring before he got hurt.
And for perhaps the first time in the tournament, McDavid acknowledged that coming back into the frenetic pace that is the World Juniors took some adjusting. “The game feels different,” he said. “Everything happens so fast.” When asked whether the game at this level has begun to slow down for him, he said, “Maybe a little bit.”
And going into what will be the most crucial game for the Canadian junior program in years, McDavid’s revival did not come a moment too soon. Late in the first period, Canadian coach Benoit Groulx decided to put Petan on the top line with McDavid and Curtis Lazar for 5-on-5 play, something he had only done on the power play to this point in the tournament. The line got the goal that stood up as the game-winner and began the Canadian deluge of goals. With all due respect to Brayden Point, he did look a little overwhelmed there. McDavid needs a player who can get him the puck in the neutral zone so he can gain control deep and he needs a player who can find the holes and finish his chances. Check and check when it came to Petan.
“If I’m passing to Connor and Nic, I know the puck is going to a good place,” Lazar said. “We’ve been playing the power play together so we’re a little familiar, but 5-on-5 is different. But we know where each other is and Nic’s hot, so we’ll keep dishing to him.”
Canada is going to need that line going and a whole lot more in the gold medal game against the Russians, who have clearly been playing possum through this tournament. This is a very, very good team, one that has beaten and is capable of beating the Canadian side. One observer said he was speaking to the brain trust from another team, who claimed the Russians lost their final preliminary game on purpose because they had no interest in finishing second in Group B and facing Canada in the semifinal. Even if it meant a tougher quarterfinal against USA and a stiff challenge in Sweden, they were prepared to take it.
True? Who knows? But it worked out perfectly for the Russians, who are now a completely different team than the one that barely beat Denmark and lost to the Czechs.
Which brings us back to Canada, a team that is going to have to be much better in the first two periods of the gold medal game than they were for the first two of the semifinal. Groulx tipped his hat to the Slovaks for keeping it close and frustrating Canada and said goalie Denis Godla was outstanding, but part of the reason for that was Canada took more shots from the periphery in this game than they have in any other in the tournament. For much of the first two periods, the speed and transition that have been the hallmark for this team were absent and not only were they playing catch with Godla for much of the first two-thirds of the game, they were not driving the net the way they have in past games.
“We’ve got to really bear down tomorrow,” McDavid said.
Chances are, the guy wearing No. 17 and heading the pack for the 2015 NHL draft will be leading the way on that front.