Bedard breaking hearts, rules of hockey in Halifax
TSN SportsCentre Reporter Mark Masters reports on the 2023 World Juniors. Team Canada and Team USA practised at Scotiabank Centre in Halifax on Tuesday ahead of Wednesday's semifinal.
Connor Bedard created an incredible World Junior moment with his dazzling display in overtime in Monday night's quarterfinal against Slovakia. Everything about the sequence impressed teammates, including the celebration.
"That was amazing," said Michigan freshman Adam Fantilli. "That was actually the first thing I said to him when I saw him. I loved it. It was the heartbreaker. I told him he should've gone on two knees like Patty Kane, but what he did was pretty good."
"The whole building's going crazy, you know, everyone's chanting MVP for him and he does the heartbreaker celebration," said Los Angeles Kings defenceman Brandt Clarke. "That's what he's been doing all tournament is just breaking hearts of the other teams."
The Slovaks tried to make life hard on the 17-year-old phenom by playing physical. It didn't work.
"It's not like I haven't been hit before or anything," Bedard said with a shrug. "It's part of the game and I didn't think too much of it."
Bedard scored twice and added an assist in the 4-3 win.
"I wanted to play him physical more. You probably could see," said Slovak forward Robert Baco. "He breaks the rules. Not like game rules, but hockey."
It sure seems like Bedard is playing by his own rules in Halifax. It feels like the Regina Pats captain is bending the tournament to his will.
Overtime lasted five minutes and 17 seconds on Monday night. Bedard was on for three minutes and 34 seconds.
"He kept looking back and wanting more," said coach Dennis Williams. "We were double shifting him a lot, but he was ready to get back out there."
But it felt like maybe it wasn't going to be Bedard's night as chance after chance went by the wayside. He fired five of his 10 shots in the extra frame.
"I notice his composure," said Arizona Coyotes winger Dylan Guenther. "If he misses a chance or something, he's really good at creating more and generating more after that."
The overtime magic was preceded by a squandered opportunity.
"He always comes back hungrier when he misses a chance like that," noted linemate Logan Stankoven.
"He got that shot in the slot and you think it's automatic from there," said Vancouver Giants captain Zack Ostapchuk, "and then he gets the puck again and he's not missing twice. He dances through everybody and finishes it off. It's such a Bedsy moment."
The decisive play came at the end of a 54-second shift. Clarke was calling for the puck at the point. Stankoven was also making himself available.
"I was more of a spectator there," the reigning Canadian Hockey League player of the year said sheepishly. "I was trying to get open for him, because he had a guy on him, but he did the work."
Bedard deked his way past Libor Nemec, Peter Repcik, second overall pick Simon Nemec and red-hot goalie Adam Gajan before sliding the puck home for his eighth goal of the tournament.
"It's almost like he's pressing random buttons on the Xbox controller coming up with some of these dangles," marvelled goalie Thomas Milic. "You never know what he's going to do next."
"I couldn't score on a shot so I had to do something," Bedard told TSN's Kenzie Lalonde.
By the time Bedard spoke to the rest of the media, he was ready to turn the page on the amazing moment.
"That game's over and I got to go prove it to myself again," he said. "That's my mentality. Play bad or good, next game I have to prove it again."
"He doesn't sit there and dwell on the biggest goal of the tournament," said Williams. "You wouldn't have known that after the game, you know, talking to him. His mind was already on to the next event and the next challenge."
The next challenge is Team USA in Wednesday's semifinal.
"What else is better?" Bedard asked rhetorically. "What else do you want? That's something everyone in the country, everyone in the continent is going to be pretty excited for. There's no better situation."
The Slovaks dialed up the physicality. What will the Americans do against Bedard?
"We have a plan in place but we're not, at this point, going to share it with the media," head coach Rand Pecknold said with a smile. "I appreciate you asking the question. We got a plan. We'll put it in place and see how it goes tomorrow night."
Pecknold has a 2005-born son and has been tracking Bedard for a while.
"We've gone through tournaments all through the years and I've seen him play," the Quinnipiac Bobcats bench boss said. "He was impressive at 10 years old, too, so nothing's changed. He's a generational player and we'll have our hands full trying to stop him."
But the Americans aren't getting caught up in the Bedard-mania that seems to have enveloped the event.
"He's had a really great tournament," said captain Luke Hughes. "He's an exceptional player. We got some great players too."
Canada and the United States will meet for the first time at the World Juniors since the Americans won the gold-medal game inside the Edmonton bubble in 2021.
"That's definitely our No. 1 rival," said Clarke. "We didn't want to say it, but that's the game we wanted. We wanted to play them. We wanted that atmosphere. The crowd's been phenomenal all the way through, but we know they'll be at a whole other level tomorrow night and we can't wait for it."
The United States steamrolled past Germany 11-1 in their quarterfinal.
"We match-up good," Clarke assured. "We've been watching film. They don't like the physical play. When we're playing our best game, we're getting to the front of the net and being physical. We're boxing out. That's what we need to do. They have a lot, a lot of skill over there and a lot of guys that if you're not on your game they can burn you. We're going to be ready for it. We'll be finishing our checks and that's going to [benefit] us."
"We got some big boys up front," Hughes responded. "We're a pretty tough group and we're really mentally tough too. So, I don't know, he can say what he wants."
Hockey Canada prioritized size in building their World Junior roster. All but one defenceman stands 6-foot-2 or taller. Team USA, meanwhile, has a small defence with only Hughes taller than 6-foot.
"It is what it is," said Pecknold. "We had our talent pool. We're not the land of giants back there, but it's an excellent D core. They're very mobile. High IQ. They can all skate. They can all make plays. It's helped us a lot this tournament with our exits. We need that to happen again tomorrow night."
At 148 pounds, American defenceman Lane Hutson is the lightest player at the World Juniors. But the Montreal Canadiens prospect is still making an impact with one goal and two assists.
"He's an elite player with elite IQ," raved Pecknold. "Really smart. Crazy deceptive. He's got a lot of deception in his game and he's done a good job defending for us, too, this tournament. I've been really happy with him."
Bedard's special moment never happens without Milic's glove save on Servac Petrovsky in overtime.
"I thought it went in," Bedard said. "I was about to start crying on the bench. That was ridiculous. I didn't know until the crowd reacted. I was so scared. Thank God. He's unbelievable."
"It was a bit of a rolling puck," Milic said. "I don't think he had the full strength there so I was a little lucky. But, like I've been saying from Day 1, just be ready for any moment whether it's the start of the game or overtime. I just did whatever I could to help the team win and lucky he returned the favour not too long after."
It was a stressful night for the Milic family with his mom actually changing seats to try and avoid being spotted on television.
"She was sitting up a little higher hoping she'd be a little more hidden," Milic said. "It was an incredible atmosphere. It was a little bit of a rollercoaster of emotions going through it, especially in overtime there. A little frustrating with all the posts we were getting towards the end of the game."
Milic stopped 24 of 27 shots.
"We don't get there without Thomas in net," Williams said. "He was lights out. He made some key saves in overtime, some big-time saves in the third. He was dynamite for us."
The one Canadian goal that Bedard wasn't in on against Slovakia came off the stick of Ostapchuk. The Ottawa Senators prospect kept the puck and shot on a 3-on-1 rush. It was his plan all along.
"I was trying to sell the pass there," he said. "I really wanted to shoot that puck. I gave him a look off and ripped it."
Why'd he want to shoot?
"I just had that feeling coming up the ice. Our guys were late coming up. I don't know. I thought I could sell the pass and I wanted to score."
As a member of Canada's checking line, Ostapchuk isn't leaned on to score, but the 19-year-old was definitely looking to contribute offensively after getting a match penalty in the New Year's Eve game against Sweden.
"It was big for me," he said. "I owed the guys one. They scored on the five-minute power play that they got so I had that in the back of my mind that I wanted to get one back for us. I'm glad it was able to work out."
Baco rocked Clarke with a huge hit in the second period, which knocked his helmet off. Players must head straight to the bench if that happens, but Clarke remained in the play and was assessed a minor penalty.
"That was dumb," Clarke admits. "I just kind of, like, blacked out and I didn't even realize until I got back to my own blue line. I'm like, I don't have a helmet on, do I? And then I looked over and the ref already had his hand up so I thought I would just finish the play. That was dumb and I wish I could take that back, but I was so in the moment. I saw Nemec come out of the box and I was like I got to get back and then I'm like, oh, that was dumb."
Canada has been dominant at the dot at the World Juniors, but lost the faceoff battle 40-33 on Monday.
"They had some good centres and were able to almost cheat a bit more," said Stankoven. "They were able to get a little more leverage and we weren't expecting that. At the start of the game, it was tough to win some draws, but then in the third and overtime I was able to win a lot of my draws."
Stankoven leads the tournament with a 74-per-cent win rate.
"I'm more of a quick-strike guy," he said. "When guys don't engage in the faceoffs as much I feel like that's when I have more success. If I'm able to not get tied up by the other centre, that's when I'm winning most draws."
Stankoven sometimes wins faceoffs too cleanly so Canada actually had Bedard move behind him on draws later in the game.
"Sometimes I'll win the draw, but it will go a bit too far," said Stankoven. "There was one time last night when I won the draw and it was like a shot against Thomas and then another one went outside the zone. If I can win that back to Connor then we have good possession. We want the puck in his hands as much as possible."
Stankoven is the only Canadian player who arrives to the rink wearing a bowtie.
"I just like the look," the Kamloops, B.C., native said. "I remember when I was choosing my blue suit a couple years ago, they didn't have a certain tie to go with it and it was more the bowtie that looked better and I've liked it ever since."
He has a blue one and a purple one.
"I started off with the blue one for the first few games, like the exhibition games, but I wasn't really feeling it," he said. "Pucks weren't bouncing my way so I switched and things have been going pretty good. So, I'm not going to change now."
Just like in the summer when he had six primary points in three knockout-stage games, Stankoven is building momentum throughout the tournament.
"He's only been getting better each game," said Williams. "He's a player who came back from the summertime with a lot of expectations probably on himself and was a little snakebitten early. He's an engine, kind of the energizer bunny. You turn him on and just let him go all game. He tracks. He's on pucks. He's hard on pucks. He's not the biggest guy but he plays like he's 6'2, 6'3."
Stankoven embraces the pressure moments. He assisted on the Kent Johnson golden goal in Edmonton and was leaned on again in Monday's 3-on-3 session.
"I'm not really scared of it," the Dallas Stars prospect said. "It's an opportunity to give your team a win. Just try and play opportunistic and finish the game off."
After Monday's crazy ending, Stankoven spoke to his parents and they all agreed the feeling in the building was similar to Edmonton's dramatic gold-medal game.
"It's the best thing," Stankoven said. "Any kid would do anything to be in my spot and in my shoes so when I go out there I try and keep that in the back of my mind and not take this opportunity for granted because it's my last chance to win a gold medal with this team."
Canada held a 15-minute practice on Tuesday. Why?
"Just getting out of the hotel," Williams said. "You could probably see it wasn't anything mentally taxing or physically taxing."
Much of the time was spent on the power play, which went 1-for-5 against the Slovaks.
"We'll clean that up for tomorrow," Guenther promised.
Guenther scored the lone man-advantage marker for Canada in the quarterfinal. It came at the end of a power play, which saw Canada's top unit stay on the ice beyond the one-minute mark.
"We had good zone time," said Williams. "We thought the energy level was still OK there. We had those five together and they've proven they can put the puck in the net."
Fantilli was in the bumper spot with the second unit on Wednesday.
"I don't play it too often, but I'm on the power play so I'll try and contribute while I'm there," he said.
After starting camp in the top six, Fantilli finds himself on the fourth line. He insists it's not a big adjustment.
"I mean, that's something I've always prided myself on is being able to play up and down the lineup," he said. "That's what makes me a versatile player. I'm going to keep trying to play the role that I'm in and do the best I can to help us win a gold medal."
Fantilli confirmed he's maintained radio silence with his four Michigan 'mates who are on Team USA.
Canada and USA will not skate on Wednesday morning.