Tavares stakes his claim for No. 1 and strikes gold

By Jason Menard

The 2009 World Junior Hockey Championship finale was billed as a rematch of last year’s gold-medal contest. But for those with an eye towards the future of hockey, tonight’s contest pitted the two prohibitive favorites to hear their name called at the top of this year’s NHL entry draft in Montreal.

John Tavares versus Victor Hedman. Former undisputed top 2009 draft prospect versus the current consensus number-one. World Junior gold was at stake — but so to was the opportunity to carve a clear path to the NHL draft podium in June.

Tournament MVP, all-star forward, and a share of the scoring lead with teammate Cody Hodgson. It’s safe to say that Tavares has staked his claim to reclaim the top prospect crown. And in doing so he powered his Team Canada squad to a 5-1 victory in the gold-medal rematch before a tournament record 20,380 spectators.

"Obviously the draft’s there and people are going to talk about it," Tavares said. "It’s just like last year, I came in and just wanted to be part of a team and be successful and bring home a gold for all of Canada. 

"Obviously my role was a lot bigger and I wanted to take upon extra leadership and play a bigger offensive role and that’s what I tried to do."
 
Understanding the underlying story between him and Hedman, Tavares said he preferred to focus on the here and now — not what may happen in June.

"I’m not really thinking about that because you just want to enjoy this experience. Our thing was let’s just play in the moment and enjoy the moment," he said. "That’s the way we were coached every day. My focus really was to stay loose, have fun, make sure I enjoyed the experience and had no regrets."

Tavares led the Canadians into action, entering the game with eight goals and six assists in five games. He would go on to add another assist to that tournament-leading total. Leading the Swedes on the ice was Victor Hedman, who entered the game a plus-five with two assists. Entering the tournament, Hedman was the hotter of the two — at least in the eyes of draftniks around the world. ISS had him ranked No. 1 for the upcoming draft, and most pundits have placed the hulking Swedish blueliner above Tavares in their rankings.

Conversely, Tavares appears to be suffering from paralysis by overanalysis. For three solid seasons, the young forward has been touted as the Next One and during that time the sheen has worn off. Although not the first — and certainly not the last — Tavares appears to be suffering from the phenomenon which sees the longer one’s in the spotlight, the more observers stop looking for the good and search for the bad. 

Hedman said that while the draft talk was present, he was focused on his team. "I was here with my team and I wanted to play as good as I can and I tried to make my best every game," Hedman said. "I’m proud to be a part of this team and we worked really hard. I thought we had a really good game in this final."

Hedman and Tavares were matched up early and often in this game. Four minutes into the period, Hedman was pinching in towards an open spot in the crease when Tavares turned his head, saw the play, and filled the passing lane. On the ensuing rush into the Swedish zone, Hedman shadowed Tavares all the way to the front of the net, anticipating a pass that never came.

Later that same period — on another Canadian power play — Hedman intercepted a Tavares pass into the slot to break up a scoring chance. This after aggressively throwing his weight around to disrupt the establishment of the Canadian power play.

In fact, Hedman seemed to be making up for a lackluster tournament with his dominant play in the first period. The burly Swede combined physical play with an ability to keep the puck on a string, engaging in a pair of dramatic rushes that resulted in quality scoring chances. Alas, it was all for naught in the first as the Canadian squad ended the first period up one goal.

In the second, Hedman stood up for his goaltender as Angelo Esposito collided with netminder Jacob Markstrom three-and-a-half minutes into the period. Hedman put Esposito in a headlock as a minor scrum took place. No penalties were called either way. And that inaction allowed Esposito to walk out in front of the Swedish goal a few short moments later and backhand his third goal of the tournament, on a second assist from Tavares. From that point on, every time Hedman touched the the crowd booed vociferously.

"I don’t really care about that. I wasn’t there to make any new friends. It’s hard to take. The refs had rules for the other games and they changed the rules for this one," Hedman said. "Somebody needed to stand up for my goalie and I did it. If they want to boo my they can boo me. I care about my goalie, I don’t really care about the people around."

Tavares continued to wreak havoc on the Swedish defense, at one point generating two scoring chances on the same shift, which were only quelled by Markstrom’s all-world play. And he showed a little defensive awareness, saving a sure goal on a Swedish power play by getting down on hands and knees to rescue an out-of-position Dustin Tokarski.

Tokarski, Tampa Bay’s 2008 fifth-round selection, quieted those critics who questioned his continued presence in the Canadian net. His performance in the gold medal game was reminiscent of his run in last year’s Memorial Cup tournament — a run that was highlighted by a 53-save performance against the host Kitchener Rangers in the Cup-clinching game and his naming as the tournament’s top goaltender and MVP.

"It’s an unbelievable feeling. The Memorial Cup was something special — an unbelievable group of guys throughout the whole season who came together as one," he said. "And here’s another unbelievable group of guys that in a little under a month came together and accomplished something amazing. They’re both separate pages of a similar book."

Although similar accolades were not forthcoming in this tournament, Tokarski played the game of his tournament in the final — outplaying his counterpart Jacob Markstrom. The Swedish second-round selection of the Florida Panthers was frequently agitated by the Canadian play — imploring the refs for penalties, receiving and instigating contract, and even fighting a couple of Canadian players at the bench area (leading to a penalty).
 
That lack of discipline cost the Swedes dearly in this game. Another Backlund penalty (he was in the box on the first Canadian power play goal) resulted in another Canadian score, this time by Cody Hodgson, which put the team up 3-0. And instrumental in that play was Tavares, who picked up his second assist — and 15th point of the tournament.

After two periods, the Swedes were outshooting the Canadian squad 28-21. The final tally was 40-31. Tokarski was perfect until the 8:30 mark of the third period when the Swedes 34th shot by Joakim Andersson eluded his glove hand. Throughout the tournament — and even leading up to it — the netminding situation was a frequent topic of conversation across Canada. The young goaltender said he felt vindicated by the performance.

"Yeah, a little bit. The only thing that matters is winning and we went 6-0 in this tournament," he said. "If anyone says anything that’s their own opinion. I’m just going to keep working hard and believing, and once again we got a gold medal."

Whether the World Junior performance changes anyone’s rankings for the upcoming draft, Hedman admitted to mixed emotions about his play and the need to apply these lessons learned to his future.

"I don’t know. Maybe I played more of a defensive role in this tournament, it’s not like a role that I play back with my club team where I play a more offensive role. What I take from me is all the fighting we did as a team, the good team spirit that we had through all the tournament," Hedman said. "I think I learned a lot from this tournament and I’m going to take it back to my club team and try to win and hopefully get to the playoffs and win the gold back home.

"I played well. It’s hard to say, but we wanted to win a gold and it doesn’t matter if I played good or bad. We came here to win a gold medal and it doesn’t matter whether I played good or not — we didn’t win. I tried to play my best and make my best every game. It’s not every day you can play at the top, but I tried to do that the whole tournament. I’m very proud of what I did at this tournament and playing for the gold, but maybe Canada played very well as a team too, so it was hard but they won the game."

At the end of the game, with just over three minutes remaining, Hedman crossed paths with Tavares in the crease, learning forward to give him a little bump from behind with his shoulder. It was symbolic of one small battle by the Swede, but the greater war was taken by the Canadian. And now we wait as they wage campaigns on separate fronts — coming together one more time in la belle province.