BUFFALO. - Ryan Johansen isn’t even sure how he managed to it – put the puck past Russia goaltender Igor Bobkov.
The power-play goal was the game winner, the one that broke open the game to help pull the sparkplugs out of the Big Red Machine on the opening day of the World Junior Hockey Championship.
“It was just a big cluster,” said Johansen of the third-period scrum in front of the Russian net. “I just tried to whack at it and it just barely hit the top of my stick and went over (Bobkov’s) pad. It was a pretty big relief to see that go in, especially because I had a couple of early chances in the game.
“It was nice to see that cross the line.”
Up until Johansen’s power play goal at the 3:36 mark of the third period, Canada had struggled to finish off the Russians by allowing them to come back to tie the score twice. The 18-year-old said that he, like the rest of his teammates, were nervous about playing at HSBC Arena in front of a packed, pro-Canadian sea of red and white jerseys, T-shirts and other apparel.
“At the start there were nerves,” said Johansen, who plays with the Western Hockey League’s Portland Winterhawks. “There’s always going to be nerves in the opening game of the world junior tournament, so we just wanted to get back to our game plan as much as possible and in the third period it showed – we were text book.”
The same could be said of Johansen, a first-round draft pick (fourth overall) of the Columbus Blue Jackets. The six-foot-two, 195-pound centre has improved every day with Team Canada starting at the selection camp in early December through to Sunday night’s 6-3 victory in the tournament opener.
“I feel a lot more comfortable especially with building a little more chemistry with my linemates and my teammates,” said Johansen. “That’s what (head coach) Dave Cameron’s been saying right from Day 1, is that we need to make sure we’re improving every day and we’ve really stuck to that plan.”
In Portland he’s been mainly centring a pair of Swiss stars – the slight Sven Bartschi and the slick Nino Niederreiter – and is among the team’s top scorers with 14 goals and 16 assists in 31 games. With Team Canada he’s been paired with a pair of Buffalo Sabres prospects – 6-2, 215-pound winger Marcus Foligno and the 6-4, 214-pound Zack Kassian – to create a juggernaut mean and skilled enough to strike fear into any opponent. As an added bonus he and Windsor Spitfires forward Kassian took turns playing wing, giving head coach Cameron some extra versatility on the power play.
“It’s just the coach’s decision, so it’s good that we have two guys that can just switch back and forth like that,” said Johansen. "We’ve got a really tall and big line so our job out there is to get the puck down low and take it to the net. We’re going to crash and bang and hopefully we’ll find some that cross the (goal) line.”
The line came together during Canada’s final exhibition game as Cameron sent them out in the third period against Finland; the trio clicked immediately and scored on its first shift. The three big bodies continued to make life miserable for the Russian defence Sunday as the Canadian crew took the first step towards wrestling back the gold medal it turned over to the United States at last year’s world junior tournament.
“Right away I could see the chemistry with three big guys,” said Johansen. “It worked really well and I’m happy to be between them.”
As far as his linemates are concerned, the feeling is mutual.
“(Johansen’s) good with us, (he’s a) smooth skater, smooth puck carrier,” Foligno told Yahoo!’s Neate Sager. “We complement each other very well out there. Me and Zack just kind of do the dirty work and we try to create as much offence as we can.”
Against Russia, the trio walked the fine line between physical play and penalty trouble, through with only three infractions on the night, Cameron said his goal was to have his squad stay disciplined. This allowed the Russians’ frustrations to get the better of them – particularly in the third period – where Canada was able to capitalize twice, including Johansen’s winner.
“The key is to play hard whistle to whistle,” said Cameron, whose team will face the Czech Republic on Tuesday. “When the whistle goes it’s over, scrumming doesn’t give you an advantage in this tournament. So finish your checks so you’re not chasing, and if you’re not chasing you’re less likely to take the lazy hook and hold and tripping penalties.”
Sunaya Sapurji is the Junior Hockey Editor at Yahoo! Sports. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org