Friday December 28th, 2007

Ask any coach what he wants out of a depth player, and he'll say, "Make the most of opportunity."

John Tavares doesn't know much about the life of a bench warmer, but he's a master of making things happen. And so, handed less than five minutes of ice time -- exclusively with the extra man -- the 17-year-old superstar-in-waiting accounted for two of Canada's three goals in an opening night shutout of the host Czech Republic at the 2008 World Junior Championship.

Tough to classify such a limited audition as a star-making turn, but it was exactly the performance he needed to prove he deserves a larger role.

"He came with the right attitude, saying he wanted to do whatever we asked him to do," Team Canada coach Craig Hartsburg said after the win. "And whatever we ask him to do, he'll do it."

Although Tavares is the most explosive offensive force in junior hockey, the thinking has been that, in a tournament dominated by 19-year-olds, it's best to expose him slowly. But with the Canadians struggling to generate offense five-on-five, you have to believe that his chance will come Saturday against Sweden, possibly on the first line alongside Kyle Turris.

The third overall pick in 2007 (Phoenix), Turris was an easy choice as Canada's player of the game on Thursday, thanks to his pair of power play goals in a 2-0 win over Slovakia, but he's not getting a lot of help out there. While Turris found his legs after a quiet game against the Czechs, his linemates, Claude Giroux (Flyers) and Brad Marchand (Boston) have yet to provide either the results or the intensity required of first-line wingers. As the only returning forward from last year's champs, Marchand has been a particular disappointment, showing little of the spark, speed and edge that made him such a noticeable performer in the summer Super Series.

If Hartsburg isn't quite ready to thrust Tavares into that role, he might want to give him some even-strength minutes alongside power play mates Steven Stamkos and Shawn Matthias. The trio displayed immediate chemistry, a factor that's been evident iby its absence during Canada's even-strength play.

After two games, it appears that Hartsburg is committed to going with a short bench. That's fine, but if he's going to roll that way, he needs to be sure to give the ice to the players who earn it. At this point, Tavares is one of those players.

Never in Doughty

If there were any doubts about defender Drew Doughty after Canada's first game, they vanished after his memorable two-way effort against the Slovaks. The second-ranked prospect for next June's draft looked a bit overwhelmed in the opener, fighting the puck and making several bad decisions that led to scoring opportunities for the Czechs. Doughty was a different player on Thursday, moving the puck smartly in his own end, and creating some magic with assists on both Team Canada goals. The second was a real piece of work, a Savardian spinnerama that should be all over YouTube today. If fans of the Kings or Capitals are looking for something positive to come out of their struggles this season, the Zubov-esque play of Doughty and the speed and creativity of top prospect Stamkos should have them dreaming of better days ahead.

Gold in goal

After two shutout victories, it looks as though Canada's strength lies, as usual, in the net. What makes things interesting is that the whitewashings were applied by different goalies. Kings prospect Jonathan Bernier -- he of the 4-1 season-opening victory over the Stanley Cup champion Ducks -- was magnificent in stopping 44 Czech shots in the opener. He was at his best, calm and economical, in the first period as the host side rode the passion of the sell-out crowd and dominated the play. Steve Mason, a 2007 pick by the Blue Jackets, was tested as frequently by the Slovaks on Thursday, but he played well enough to stir up talk of a goalie controversy.

Believe this: it won't get beyond the talking stage. Barring injury or a catastrophic meltdown, there's almost no chance that Mason will see the ice again. Bernier will get the start against Sweden on Saturday, and a win in that game gives Canada a bye into the medal round. Since that semifinal contest won't take place until next Friday, it's inconceivable that Hartsburg will want his No. 1 goalie to go into it after six days of rest. And make no mistake: Bernier is the No. 1. That means he'll be between the pipes for what should be a meaningless game on New Year's Eve against Denmark, and Mason can look forward to telling his grandkids that he never was scored upon at the WJC.

Random notes

The Slovaks may be icing their worst WJC lineup to date, but a pair of undrafted defensemen are managing to catch the attention of the talent hounds on hand:

Marek Biro, a 19-year-old blueliner with Windsor of the OHL, played a smart, physical game that made the most of his 6-5, 220 build. Milan Balis is smaller, but offers a similarly simple, safe effort in his own end. Neither looks like a star, but both could find their way onto NHL rosters eventually...

If I'm Hartsburg, I take Josh Godfrey off the power play and insert Montreal first- rounder P.K. Subban. After watching that unit struggle to score twice on 12 chances against the Slovaks, something has to give....

Final thought

The next time you're inclined to criticize the officiating in the NHL, stop down and work in a couple of international games. It won't take long to realize just how good we have it over here.

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