- Gare Joyce
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MORA, Sweden -- No one came into the 2007 world junior championship feeling more pressure than Jonathan Toews.
It wasn't just that he was going to center the first line, man the power play, kill penalties and do everything except drive the team bus for Canada, the two-time defending champion in the under-20 tournament.
No, on top of that he was nursing a shoulder injury and coming off what has been a disappointing sophomore season at the University of North Dakota. Oh, and every time he turned around at the Canadian team's training camp, he was bumping into a reporter who would ask him about not scoring a goal in Canada's run to the gold medal in Vancouver last winter.
But in Canada's opening-round games -- and particularly in a crucial 6-3 victory over the U.S. on Wednesday -- Toews has clearly been the best player on the ice. And he played his best when it was needed most. He thrived under the pressure, although Chicago Blackhawks general manager Dale Tallon suggested that a lot of the pressure on Toews was self-imposed.
"He expects a lot of himself," Tallon said. "He's expected to do a lot at this tournament, but nobody holds him to a higher standard than the one he holds himself to."
Toews, a Winnipeg native who was Chicago's first-round pick, third overall, in the 2006 NHL entry draft, is usually a two-way forward who's quietly effective -- more of a playmaker than a flashy finisher. But Toews rocked the Americans with a flourish, scoring two goals, including the winner on a penalty shot.
It was an impressive performance, all the more so because Canadian coach Craig Hartsburg matched Toews head-to-head against Peter Mueller, Phoenix's first-round pick in last summer's draft. Mueller has been lighting it up this season for the Everett Silvertips, the top-ranked team in Canadian junior hockey. If you ask around in the Western Hockey League, they'll tell you that Mueller is the best player in the league these days.
But Mueller had his struggles against Canada -- playing the point on the U.S. power play, it often looked like he was trying to stickhandle a bar of soap -- while Toews stole the show.
Canada jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first period on goals by Steve Downie and Tom Pyatt. Then, on a power play early in the second period, Toews crashed the net and neatly deked American goaltender Jeffrey Zatkoff to give the defending champions a seemingly commanding 3-0 lead.
The U.S rallied though, and goals by Erik Johnson of the University of Minnesota (the first overall pick by St. Louis in last summer's draft) and Michael Carmen brought the Americans to within a goal by the second intermission.
Midway through the third period, Toews crushed the U.S. hopes. After slipping behind the American blue line, Toews had a clean breakaway on Zatkoff. Just when it looked like the goaltender had Toews shut down, defenseman Johnson threw his stick about 20 feet and the ref had no choice but to award Toews a penalty shot. Toews' finish on the penalty shot was classic -- a cold Mike Bossy-brand wrist shot high on the glove side.
So much for quietly effective.
Still, his usual game was in evidence. When Canada was defending a one-goal lead but faced a 5-on-3 penalty kill, Hartsburg sent Toews out for the faceoff in the Canadian end. Toews won it cleanly, and what turned out to be the last threat was snuffed out.
"That's a real part of his game that we see all the time," Tallon said. "He works both ends of the rink [he's] very conscientious defensively. And he has great instincts for the game. He's not chasing the puck so much as going to where the puck is heading."
His future boss piled on the praise, but Toews sounded more relieved than anything else. The performance was, Toews said, "a monkey off my back."
"I learned a lot from last year's tournament," he said. "There's certain things that you have to do to win the world juniors, and every team is going to face certain challenges."
All true, and the clearest challenge for this Canadian team is going to be scoring enough goals. Canada is returning a corps of staunch defensemen from last year's gold-medal squad, but up front, well, let's just say there are a lot of workmen and too few artists.
Going into weekend play, the American team, a co-favorite with Canada for the gold here, is winless in two games. The U.S. opened with a loss to -- get ready -- Germany in its tournament opener. For their part, the Canadians knocked off the host Swedes 2-0 in an opening game that could have gone either way. That leaves the U.S. likely needing a win over Sweden to keep medal hopes alive. That might not seem like too tough a task, but the U.S. has looked anything but composed here. The worst offender has been the University of Michigan's Jack Johnson, who was beaten on the play that led to Toews penalty shot.
If the U.S. doesn't earn a medal, then USA Hockey will have a lot of questions to answer -- in particular about the decision to leave two players, winger Bobby Ryan and defenseman Bobby Sanguinetti, with their Owen Sound Attack club in the Ontario Hockey League.
Gare Joyce is a frequent contributor to ESPN The Magazine.
Jonathan Toews and Peter Mueller are facing different challenges at the World Junior Championship, writes Gare Joyce.