Canada opens hockey worlds with win over Belarus
Ken Hitchcock is ready to turn the keys over to the kids.
Canada received clutch performances from its youngest players while opening the IIHF World Hockey Championship with a 4-1 win over Belarus, prompting the coach to muse about some changes to his lineup.
John Tavares was named Canada's best player Friday despite spending a team-low 11 minutes 24 seconds on the ice. The 20-year-old had a goal and an assist while registering seven shots.
Linemate Jeff Skinner, at age 18 the youngest player in the NHL this season, scored the eventual game-winner in his first international game at the senior level.
"I think we really trust and feel confident in those kids," said Hitchcock. "Offensively, they look more mature than their ages. They were effective again tonight so I think you're going to see those two guys probably get additional ice time once we get our lines consistent."
Hitchcock had only 11 healthy forwards to choose from in the opening game but should have an even four lines Sunday against France because winger James Neal is due to arrive before then.
The coach is considering putting Tavares and Skinner on a unit that could potentially develop into the team's No. 1 line.
"I think one of the things we might do is end up giving [Chris] Stewart and [Rick] Nash to the kids here yet," said Hitchcock. "We'll see. We'll just debate it here in the next 24 hours.
"I guess the feeling we have is if they're this mature in their game then let's crank it up."
Another young player who caught the coach's eye was Jordan Eberle, who scored twice against Belarus to give him 17 goals in his last 17 national team games dating back to the 2009 world junior championship.
Like Tavares and a few others here, the 20-year-old attended the world championship a year ago when Canada finished a disappointing seventh. They intend to draw on that experience and deliver a stronger performance here.
"JT, [Evander] Kane, [Matt] Duchene — we've all played in this tournament before," said Eberle. "So it's really nothing new to us. For us, it's coming back and a little redemption for last year, we weren't happy with the finish.
"We're off to a good start."
There were a couple wobbly moments to overcome.
After Eberle staked Canada to a 1-0 lead, defenceman Luke Schenn misplayed the puck behind his own net late in the first period and allowed Andrei Stepanov to tie it on a power play. The Belarusian was wide open at the side of the net to beat James Reimer.
Skinner scored the eventual winner just past the midway point of the game after Tavares dug the puck out from the corner. He showed deft hands in quickly lifting a shot over Andrei Mezin.
The Calder Trophy finalist thinks the makeup of the team has allowed him to get comfortable quickly.
"Coming in, you have guys the same age that you can relate to," said Skinner. "At the same time, we still have a solid veteran presence that have been here and know what it takes.
"Those guys are relied upon for leadership and stuff like that and us young guys sort of follow in their footsteps."
All and all, it was a pretty solid start for the second-youngest team Canada has sent to this event since NHLers started participating in 1977. The average age of the roster is 24 years two months.
The best chances for Belarus came from captain Mikhail Grabovski, who did all he could to beat Reimer — his teammate with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Grabovski directed seven shots on net, including a breakaway chance late in the second when the score was still 2-1.
"He's a sick player — we play another game and he'll probably pot two or three," Reimer said of Grabovski.
The Canadians looked extremely composed over the final 20 minutes, building a comfortable lead on goals by Tavares and Eberle while limiting the chances in their own end.
It was just one more sign the kids are learning.
"You can never count anyone out in this tournament," said Eberle. "That's one thing I learned last year too, every team is a good hockey team and everyone can skate. You've got to be prepared for anything."