KOSICE, Slovakia — There are personal sacrifices to be made for team success at the IIHF World Hockey Championship.
Every single Canadian player is averaging less ice time during the tournament than he received during the NHL season. No one is doing more with less than John Tavares, who leads the team with four goals and eight points despite spending less than 13 minutes per game on the ice.
The 20-year-old forward has no concerns about the way coach Ken Hitchcock has chosen to use him.
“We are obviously a really deep team so ice time has been pretty spread out,” Tavares said Sunday. “I think I’ve found a good role for myself and understand what the coaching staff wants from me. I just try and bring that every game.”
He’s succeeded thus far with at least one point in each of Canada’s five victories to open the tournament.
One benefit of using players less is that they should still be pretty fresh as the event transitions to its most important phase. Starting with Monday’s final round robin game against Sweden (TSN, 12:15 p.m.), Canada will need to play four times in seven days to capture gold.
“I think the more games we get to play the better,” said forward Matt Duchene. “One thing that’s different here is that the ice time is so spread out on our team. Even though you’re playing a back-to-back or six games in 10 days, you’re not playing the minutes you’re used to playing.
“So it’s not going to wear you down as much because the load is so equally distributed.”
Hitchcock is also spreading the work among his goalies. He decided to give Jonathan Bernier his second straight start against Sweden after riding James Reimer for the first four games of the tournament.
The coach plans to decide which of the two will be his No. 1 man for the medal round after seeing Bernier one more time.
A key to Hockey Canada’s program is that neither is likely to complain no matter how it turns out, just as Devan Dubnyk didn’t ruffle any feathers even if he was unhappy about becoming the team’s No. 3 goalie when Bernier arrived.
Personal rivalries must be set aside at a tournament like this. For example, Tavares and Duchene were both top-rated prospects in the 2009 draft — Tavares went No. 1 to the Islanders, Duchene went No. 3 to Colorado — and will likely always be compared with one another throughout their careers (amazingly, their NHL stat lines are virtually identical after two seasons).
“I think there’s definitely a sense of competition there and I think it’s good,” said Duchene. “On these teams, you want to kind of let that go. Even though you’re on the same team you’re in different situations, playing on different lines. Last year (at the world championship) we were on the same line so you can’t compete with each when you’re on the same line.
“But we’re going to always push each other.”
The only reason Duchene finds himself without any points yet at this tournament is bad luck. He should have received primary assists on three goals here, but wasn’t given credit by the referees on the ice — and the IIHF didn’t correct the errors afterwards.
Even though he expressed some frustration on his Twitter account after Saturday’s 3-2 victory over Norway, he’s willing to set aside personal statistics for something more important.
“I’ll happily take zero points and a gold medal,” said Duchene.
Canada has reached the point of the tournament where it will find out if the individuals that came here are now a team. A victory over Sweden would give them the top seed on their side of the draw, but it could also set up a tough quarter-final against Russia depending on other results Monday.
Hitchcock has encouraged his players to focus solely on winning against Sweden without concerning themselves with the various playoff scenarios.
The team still needs to prove it can play a full game without taking its foot off the gas pedal. Canada lost third-period leads before beating Switzerland in overtime and the U.S. in a shootout and allowed Norway to get back in the game after going ahead 3-0 on Saturday.
“It seems like every country can play now,” said defenceman Luke Schenn. “Every team can skate and there is no blowout games like you used to see in international hockey. All of the guys are big and strong, they can shoot the puck.
“Being on the Canadian team, a lot of fans kind of expect you to roll over the bottom-end teams, but it’s not like that any more when you play over here.”
Despite that, the tournament appears to be there for the taking. The only other unbeaten team at the world championship is the defending champion Czechs, but the earliest Canada will face them is the semifinals.
A key to any success will be continued production throughout the lineup — something Tavares has shown is possible. He received seven more minutes of ice time from the Islanders this season than he’s got from Canada, but says it hasn’t made playing here any more challenging.
“You still feel in the game,” said Tavares. “We’re always talking on the bench, always positive and making sure you’re ready for that next shift. I just do what I can to be ready and try to do the best job that I can when I’m asked to go out there.”