BUFFALO --- Breaking out on a 2-on-1, Team Canada’s Casey Cizikas was thinking about passing to linemate Louis Leblanc all the way.
After all, it is Leblanc who’s the Montreal Juniors star with the deft hands. Even the Swiss expected the pass, so when the lone defender started pressing Leblanc and goaltender Benjamin Conz started cheating, Cizikas made the last-second decision to go up high and roofed the puck over the Swiss ’keeper.
“It was definitely something I will always remember,” said Cizikas of scoring the game-winning goal in a 4-1 victory that advanced Canada to the semifinal of the 2011 World Junior Championship.
Up until Cizikas’ goal, the game had been tied 1-1 with Canada playing catch-up after falling behind early. Making matters worse was the play of Conz, who stopped 22 shots in the first period alone and was showing yet again why he is one of the world’s best young netminders after having been named goaltender of the world junior tournament last year.
“It’s always tough mentally with each goal that you give up,” said Conz after his 46-save performance through Swiss assistant coach Alex Reinhard, who acted as interpreter. “At that time I tried to do something more and I wasn’t able to make (the save on the winner).”
Cizikas patiently waited -- what seemed like an eternity for Canadian fans - for Conz to commit and then made his move.
“It was a nice play,” said Cizikas. “I was just trying to wait out the goalie. I was going to pass the whole time to Louis (Leblanc), but the defender was doing a good job to take (that pass option) away so I just put it in the back of the net.”
And that’s what happens when you take Casey Cizikas’ skills lightly. Ever since making Team Canada, some have questioned whether the native of Mississauga, Ont., was good enough to have made the squad based on his own merits -- and not just because he also captains the Mississauga Majors, the OHL club helmed by Canada’s head coach Dave Cameron. At the start of the tournament, Cameron was asked by a TV reporter about those who thought Cizikas didn’t deserve to be in Buffalo.
“Who said that? Tell me who said that?” Cameron replied tersely.
It had to be someone who has never seen the 19-year-old play for the Majors, where Cizikas is one of the team’s top scorers with 16 goals and 36 points in 28 OHL games. He’s a workhorse on special teams, too, whether it’s his strength, killing penalties, or on the power play.
"He scored a big goal but scoring isn’t what drives him,” said Cameron, who drafted Cizikas third overall in the 2007 OHL draft. “Winning does.”
And he’s intense, to the point where friendships -- like the one Cizikas shares with fellow Islanders prospect Nino Niederreiter -- are put on hold. The two players met and became good friends last summer when they were both at camp in Long Island, N.Y., not that it was of any consequence to the Mississauga native once the puck hit the ice on Sunday.
“There might have been a little swearing to one another on the ice, but that’s about it,” said Cizikas of his on-ice chat with Niederreiter. “On the ice there’s no love between anybody. He could be your best friend from when you’re three, or like Nino -- I met him over the summer and we became friends -- but there’s no love on the ice, only enemies.”
But even with all the junior accolades, the 6-foot, 185-pound centre says he has heard people question whether he should be at the tournament.
“People are going to say what they’re going to say -- and they have a right to say it,” said Cizikas of the criticism. “If people think that (I shouldn’t be here), then go ahead. But I think I had a good enough year to deserve to be on this team.
“When it came down to it and we did have meetings with the coaches, (Cameron) left the room so it wasn’t like he was in the room talking to me, so people can say what they want but it’s not going to interfere with how I play on the ice.”
Cizikas believes having Cameron behind the bench does help, but only because the coach knows what he’s capable of after they’ve been together for the past three seasons.
“It definitely helps,” said the centre. “But you can’t play favourites here, there are 21 guys that also play great hockey and they’re all here for a reason, too, so I just try to bring my game to the table.”
Cizikas has an international pedigree with Hockey Canada, having won a gold medal as part of Canada’s Under-18 squad at the 2008 Memorial of Ivan Hlinka tournament in Slovakia, a matching keepsake to go with the gold medal he earned with the Under-17 team in London, Ont. Here in Buffalo, the fourth-round pick of the New York Islanders in 2009 -- 92nd overall -- is slowly but surely proving the naysayers wrong, showing some of his offensive flair with two goals and an assist in five games. More importantly, he’s been flourishing in his role as one of Canada’s top penalty-killers, regularly out there to shut down the opposition and spark his teammates.
“He had a great rebound game,” said Cameron, who thought Cizikas could have been better in Canada’s 6-5 shootout loss to Sweden. “I didn’t think he was very good the game before (against Sweden). I thought he played his game (against Switzerland), which is just outsmarting the other team, good penalty kill. He loves that role.”
Cameron and Canada will be calling on Cizikas again during Monday night’s semifinal at HSBC Arena, when they face defending champions Team USA in a rematch of the gold-medal final from one year ago.
“Both teams are playing for that gold-medal game, we’re both playing to get there,” Cizikas said. “There’s that rivalry that’s always been there between those two countries. There is definitely a bit (of hate), but you can’t let that get out and overtake your game.”
Sunaya Sapurji is the Junior Hockey Editor at Yahoo! Sports. You can reach her at: firstname.lastname@example.org