Canada ready to battle Sweden at world junior hockey

Brandt Clarke was in his blue line position early in the second period when play came to an abrupt end.

The Canada defenseman knew that Connor Bedard had just received the puck on his stick blade. Then he didn’t have it anymore.

Moments later, there were gasps and screams from the red-clad crowd at the Scotiabank Center when they — along with the referees and Bedard’s teammates — realized what had happened.

The 17-year-old prodigy placed the puck perfectly from an almost impossible angle into a tight space under the crossbar for the first of his two goals in Canada’s 11-0 win over Austria on Thursday night.

« It was very sudden, » Clarke said when asked for his views after practice Friday. Then you watch the cover and you wonder what happened. The gap was the width of a puck and he sent her where only he can. It’s quite remarkable. »

It’s been a standout week at the World Junior Hockey Championship for whoever is considered the next No. 1 pick in the NHL Draft.

Bedard has amassed 14 points since the start of the tournament to lead in that category — seven points ahead of linemate Logan Stankoven at second place — and tied Jordan Eberle for the national career high (14) in this tournament.

A native of North Vancouver, British Columbia, Bedard also tied the Canadian record with seven points in an 11-2 win against Germany, before adding six against Austria.

« He’s very special, » said forward Dylan Guenther, who was loaned out by the Arizona Coyotes before the tournament. You never see that. »

But you could see it if number 16 is on the ice.

And Clarke, a member of the Los Angeles Kings, believes Bedard could play in the NHL today.

« He’s got the drive, the skill and the determination, » Clarke said. There is no exceptional status in the NHL, but if it was, he would be the number one candidate. »

The star center for the Regina Pats — coincidentally where Eberle played in the WHL — is just four points off the Canadian record of 31, set by Eric Lindros over three tournaments.

However, the tournament is unlikely to see Bedard again when he is expected to play in the NHL next season.

Junior world records are fun, but what Bedard really dreams of is a moment like the one Eberle is truly remembered by fans for — his spectacular equalizing goal in the dying seconds of the semi-final against Russia at the 2009 tournament in Ottawa.

« If you ask anyone in the country, people would want to score that goal, » Bedard said. It would be nice to score a big goal like he did. »

With the tournament hosts set to face Sweden on Saturday, in a New Year’s Eve match that will affect the standings, Canada head coach Dennis Williams says Bedard will trade all of his points for another gold medal. He also won gold in August, when the tournament resumed, postponed by the pandemic.

« Everybody likes to score goals and have their name on the scoresheet, » Williams said. To get to know him deeper, Connor is there for one thing only — he wants to repeat as champion. He will do whatever is necessary. »

Clarke was asked what he thinks motivates Bedard, a player who was previously mentioned in the same conversation as Connor McDavid.

« People are motivated in different ways, » he said. A guy who knows his abilities, likes to put on a show, likes to make plays with the puck, has the most self-confidence. It motivates him. He wants to be better than he was in the last game. That’s just the kind of person he is. »

His country could ask for nothing more.

Things to settle

Canada enters the final day of action in Group A with six points from three games. Sweden sits first with eight points, followed by Czechia with seven points.

Canada lost in curtain raiser against the Czech Republic. A regular-time win for the Maple Leaf representatives against Sweden would guarantee them at least a second spot heading into Monday’s quarter-finals.

The Czech Republic will face Germany in their final game of the preliminary round.

Confidence in Milic

Williams announced that Thomas Milic would be the starting goaltender rather than Benjamin Gaudreau.

Canada’s only undrafted player in his year of eligibility — Bedard and Adam Fantilli are eligible in June — Milic used that as motivation.

« I’m very proud, » Milic said of his presence as a goaltender on this very talented team. [De ne pas être repêché], it’s always something on my mind, but right now my priority is the tournament, and I want to help my team. If you play well, you play well. That’s all that matters in a tournament like this. »

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