TORONTO – The biggest statement in the battle between John Tavares and Victor Hedman was made by Dana Tyrell.
While the rock-solid forward won’t supplant either of those players as the top pick in next year’s draft – Tyrell was selected by Tampa in the second round a couple years ago – he made the biggest impact on Friday night.
Tyrell laid out Hedman with a massive hit on the first shift of the game and Canada never looked back in beating Sweden 4-2 in an exhibition tune-up for the world junior championship.
“That set a tone for us,” said coach Pat Quinn. “We had some good responses from other guys after that. We don’t have a lot of hitters and the guys that have that skill need to show the way – and he did right off the bat.”
Tavares and Hedman each scored during the game and were each among the better players on their respective teams.
Scouts have them ranked as the top two prospects for the June draft. Unless something unexpected happens, one of them will be picked first and the other will go second.
They don’t meet often as Tavares plays for Oshawa in the Ontario Hockey League while Hedman suits up for Modo in the Swedish League. Seeing them on the same ice surface provided a nice sideshow to the first game the Canadian team has played since wrapping up its selection camp in Ottawa earlier this week.
So far, so good.
“We played simple and stuck to our game,” said Tavares. “You could see chemistry coming along. I think we could have had a lot more (goals) than we had tonight – we almost had 50 shots.”
The Canadian team that will play for a fifth straight gold medal at this tournament has no shortage of skill but there have been some questions about whether they’ll be tough enough.
It makes a player like Tyrell particularly valuable, which is why coach Quinn was left speaking cautiously after the game. The rugged winger didn’t play at all in the third period because of a lower-body injury and will be re-evaluated on Saturday.
Quinn has always been a fan of hardnosed hockey but doesn’t think it’s essential at the world junior tournament.
“There are times you’d like to be able to say to your bench, `well go and do some hurt on this kid,”’ he said. “In this type of series, it’s not like you’re going to play someone eight times and you can set that sort of stuff up.
“You have to turn your cheek.”
Cody Hodgson had a goal and two assists while Zach Boychuk and Jamie Benn also scored for Canada.
Oscar Moller had the other goal for Sweden.
The Canadians took charge from the beginning and were clearly spurned on by Tyrell’s early hit on Hedman. The Canadian winger is about 10 inches shorter than his Swedish counterpart but you would never have known it by the force of contact.
“Tyrell’s a pretty strong guy,” said Hodgson. “Any time he gets a run on someone and takes them out, they’re going down.”
Hedman didn’t think he was being targeted.
“You hit the guy that is next to you and you don’t care who it is,” he said.
Things were going much better for Tavares.
He opened the scoring at 4:22 on a power play after Hodgson skated the puck around the net and set him up. That set off the kind of excited goal celebration that you don’t see at many exhibition games.
“Just scoring for Canada,” said Tavares. “Any time you represent your country and you score a goal like that and you’re playing at home in front of 15,000 people – why wouldn’t you be excited?”
It was symbolic of the energy the team had most of the evening, perhaps drawing off a vocal crowd at Air Canada Centre. The building wasn’t full but it was louder than it is on many nights when the Maple Leafs are here.
Canada was at its best in the second period – outshooting the Swedes 20-9 – but drew the ire of their coach by easing up late in the game.
“We kind of backed off and thought it was over,” said Quinn. “If we’re going to be a gold medal team, we can’t play that way. We’ve got to find a way to be involved the whole game and we weren’t.”
Fortunately, it was just the first exhibition game. The Canadian team will play two more friendlies in Southern Ontario before opening the world junior tournament on Dec. 26 against the Czech Republic at Scotiabank Place.
It’s pretty clear that their fortunes will likely be tied to Tavares.
“That guy’s just sick, he’s sick,” said Canadian defenceman PK Subban. “It’s his mentality on the ice. I think he goes out there and knows what he has to do. He puts everything aside and that’s what makes him better than everyone else.”
As for the team, Quinn has been downplaying expectations.
The veteran coach doesn’t think he has as much skill as the Swedes – led by Moller, who has been playing in the NHL for Los Angeles this season – and won’t be surprised if his team has to beat them to win another gold medal.
“On paper, they should be the favourites,” said Quinn. “Paper, you wipe something with that sometimes.”
Notes: Dustin Tokarski started in goal for Canada and stopped all eight shots he faced …Tavares and defenceman Ryan Ellis are the only Canadian players that haven’t been drafted by an NHL team … Ellis is the youngest player on the Canadian team and will wear a full facemask in the tournament … Quinn coached the Maple Leafs when the team moved to the Air Canada Centre in February 1999. He received a nice ovation and a video tribute during the first period.