BUFFALO – It was never about the game itself. Even the Swiss knew they had little chance against Canada in the quarterfinal of the world juniors and when Brett Howden opened the scoring less than a minute into the game, it was apparent that the rout was on. Canada did indeed cruise to an 8-2 victory over Switzerland, but an important note was the strong play of defensemen Cale Makar and Conor Timmins.
With Montreal Canadiens blueliner Victor Mete held out of the game and Nashville prospect Dante Fabbro coming into the tournament banged up, it was a very good sign that Makar and Timmins – both of whom are Colorado Avalanche picks – have stepped up as the medal round begins.
Both players had two points against the Swiss and Makar was named Canada’s player of the game. They played as a pair for the first time and their ice time rose with every period. That allowed Canada to ease the ice time of veterans such as Fabbro, Jake Bean and Kale Clague and the ascension of both Avs picks is great news for Colorado.
“The forwards need to be able to rely on all our ‘D,’ ” Makar said. “Obviously some of us are banged up, but at the end of the day I think we’ll all be fine.”
It’s been quite the rise for Makar, who was taken fourth overall by Colorado in the 2017 draft. A star in the Alberta Jr. A League with Brooks, he was a record-breaker at the World Jr. A Challenge and showed well at the World Junior Summer Showcase in Michigan. From there, he headed to UMass for this season and has been one of the Minutemen’s most effective players. Stepping his game up in new situations seems to be a regular occurrence for him and the world juniors appears to be the next box to tick off.
“I try to embrace as many challenges as possible,” he said. “Being here and having a little bit of inconsistent ice time, I’m accepting the role on the team and I know everyone has a role.”
Timmins, Colorado’s second-rounder (32nd overall) in 2017), was also at the Summer Showcase, but had a tougher go of things.
“Obviously there was a lot of high-end talent there and it was August so you’re not really in game shape,” Timmins said. “But I tried to build off that and it worked out well for me.”
Indeed, the smart and mobile Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds defender has been a champ in the OHL this season and earned his way onto Canada’s squad for the world juniors.
Timmins was a plus-6 against the Swiss and had a couple of ten-bell chances early on that easily could have increased that total. Even though Makar is well-known for his excellent puck skills and skating, the match-up really clicked.
“It was cool,” Timmins said. “He’s definitely a strong offensive player so it allowed me to get more opportunities on offense. I think we complemented each other well. I want to move pucks and play a strong role defensively here, but that’s still part of my game back in the Soo, so if I need to contribute, I can.”
Canada’s back end was always going to be a strength in this tournament, especially with three returnees (Fabbro, Bean and Clague) on the squad. But having such great balance as the games get harder is going to be a huge boon and Timmins has talked to the vets about how to handle things at the world juniors.
“The biggest thing is to stay in the moment,” he said. “There are a lot of distractions and it can get overwhelming at times, but the guys who have been through it know how to handle it and they’ve been very helpful.”
Successful tournaments for Makar and Timmins would mean a lot to Colorado, too. The Avs have been starving for blueliners for a long time and Makar in particular doesn’t seem too far off from NHL duty already. The addition of Samuel Girard in the Matt Duchene trade helps, but the idea of a Makar-Timmins pairing in the future is pretty intriguing too.
In the here and now, both players know that the Czechs will be a greater challenge in the semis and Timmins was happy with how his squad maintained their poise in the blowout over the Swiss.
“For us, we managed the game well,” he said. “You don’t want to get too far away from your systems and I thought we did a good job of that. We stayed true to our game.”
And if Canada can continue to do that, they’ll have another shot at gold this year.