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Bernier saves the day for Team Canada

by Brad Holland

By staying calm and keeping the Czech Republic off the board, Jonathan Bernier allowed his teammates time to get rolling.
When a goaltender has a period like Jonathan Bernier did in the first period of Canada’s first game at the 2008 World Junior Championships, it isn’t just the fans who come away impressed. Even the players sit up and take notice.

Josh Godfrey, a Washington Capitals prospect and Team Canada defenseman, was front and center for Bernier’s brilliance in Canada’s 3-0 victory over the Czech Republic. He had as good a viewpoint as anyone in Pardubice, Czech Republic, Wednesday afternoon.

“He was incredible,” Godfrey said. “We came out and maybe didn’t have our legs off the start, but he saved us, and as the game wore on he kept playing the same way.”

The Canadians were unable to get their legs under them until after the first, as the Czech Republic players came out flying and forechecking hard, and did not allow the Canadians any time to make plays. The Czech Republic was feeding off a sense of pride and of urgency, brought out by playing in front of a rowdy, excited crowd.

“It was crazy in there, almost like a soccer game the way the fans were into it, they were whistling and everything,” Godfrey said.

By staying calm and keeping the Czech Republic off the board, Bernier allowed his teammates time to get rolling. As the game wore on they only got stronger, culminating in a two-goal third period that saw the Canadians dictate the bulk of the play.

“With (Bernier) keeping us in the game early, obviously it helped us toward the end,” Godfrey said.

Team Canada’s 2008 WJC run is off on the right foot, and they have upped their tournament-record win streak to 19 consecutive games. The Canadian side has not been defeated since Team USA took the 2004 gold-medal game in Helsinki, Finland, by a score of 4-3.

When a team wins that many games in a streak, especially in international competition, where the rosters are turned over every 2-3 years, many different players have to step up to make it happen. Wednesday’s win was no exception, as two of Team Canada’s youngest players played like wily veterans.

For this victory, all it took was a hot goaltender and two 17-year-olds who know how to put the puck in the net. John Tavares (2009 Draft-eligible) scored twice and Steven Stamkos (2008) assisted on all three goals in their WJC debuts.

Tavares was one of the last forwards cut from last year’s WJC roster, but at this season’s Canada/Russia Super Series, the young phenom proved he belonged as he scored one goal and added 10 assists, and finished the eight-game set with 11 points, behind only teammate Sam Gagner, who finished with 15.

Another 1990-born skater, Stamkos, proved he, too, belongs in the world’s premier U-20 tournament, as he added three assists for the Canadians. He used his speed and his linemates to generate chances all over the ice en route to his three-point performance.

The simple fact that Tavares and Stamkos, two 1990-born skaters in a tournament full of ’88s and ’89s, were able to shine so brightly and yet still did not garner the Team Canada game MVP honors is a testament to just how dominant Bernier’s performance actually was.

Godfrey knows his goaltender was a big part of the win over the Czechs, and that Bernier gave them the necessary time to get settled in. But he also knows it will be up to him and his fellow defensemen, as the tournament progresses, to limit some of the chances Bernier saw.

“A lot of times if he can see it there won’t be a rebound, it’s up to us to box out, let him see the shots, and just limit the second chances,” Godfrey said.

The task will prove difficult especially as the preliminary round plays itself out and the elimination round begins. With every new game, the teams will be getting more comfortable and more developed, and the “little things” will become that much more important.

Each game in the tournament is vitally important if a team hopes to challenge for the gold, late-tournament success the reward for early-tournament victories.

Team Canada has earned the all-important bye into the semifinals in each of the past five tournaments. In the final game, which Canada also has reached in five consecutive tournaments, they have faced the opposing pool’s top team, with the two bye-winners facing off for the gold.

Where you end up has a lot to do with how you start, something Godfrey and his Canadian teammates know well. And they’ve started well as they challenge for their fourth consecutive gold medal, on the backs of two underage forwards and a goaltender with ice water running through his veins.

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