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Canada's Connor McDavid progressed throughout world junior championship

01/05/2015 05:59 EST | Updated 03/07/2015 05:59 EST
TORONTO - When Connor McDavid broke a bone in his right hand in November, the injury cast doubt on him playing for Canada at the world junior championship. In the six weeks following and first six games of the tournament, the can't-miss generational talent has erased any doubt about his return to brilliance.

McDavid progressed from Canada's opener against Slovakia on Boxing Day to Monday night's gold-medal showdown with Russia, along the way showing off his talent on the world stage.

"He's got that progression since Day 1 of training camp," coach Benoit Groulx said. "He's got to make his comeback at the world junior championship, which is a world of difference between our league or the playoffs, it's not even close.

"You have the best players in the world, the game goes 100 miles an hour, and it's quite an adjustment. I really feel Connor has been better and better every day."

McDavid was held without a point Dec. 26 but had two goals and eight assists over his next five games. That put him among the tournament's leading scorers.

It was reasonable to think the 17-year-old would have some rust on him after missing so much time.

During a game with the OHL's Erie Otters on Nov. 11, McDavid broke the fifth metacarpal bone in his right hand in a fight with Mississauga's Bryson Cianfrone. Even as competitive a person as McDavid is, he wondered if he'd be able to play at the world juniors.

"There's always moments of doubt," McDavid said. "Even when the doctor said kind of at the beginning, 'It's going to be close, it's a couple weeks, you don't know.' At the end you start to realize that it's going to be a possibility. It was a long, long recovery."

McDavid's first game back was an exhibition contest Dec. 21 and the first contest that counted was against Slovakia. His hand was fine, but something just didn't feel right.

"It's weird when you first get back," McDavid said. "If you have never come back from an injury as a hockey player, it's really hard to explain."

McDavid had a goal and two assists in game No. 2, making the most of being on a powerful second line with Robby Fabbri and Ottawa Senators forward Curtis Lazar. Canada had the luxury of that being the second line because Max Domi, Sam Reinhart and Anthony Duclair represented a powerful first wave.

To get through this tournament, Canada was so deep it didn't need McDavid to take over games. But when the knockout round began, that's exactly what he did.

Against Denmark, he set up Lazar for a goal while falling to the ice and scored his own by forcing a turnover, zipping to the net and deking the goaltender out of the crease. Duclair said he and his teammates were "starstruck" by McDavid just like fans.

In the semifinal against Slovakia, McDavid recorded three assists, and his cross-ice pass to set up Nic Petan for one of his goals was nothing short of sublime. Much like Sidney Crosby, teammates at the world juniors have had to adjust to playing with McDavid because he thinks and plays several steps ahead.

"He's able to slow it down so I just try and get open for him and let him do the work," said winger Brayden Point, who at one point replaced the injured Fabbri on McDavid's line. "It's different because he makes plays that other guys can't."

It took time before McDavid looked like his old self. But even so, NHL Network analyst Craig Button didn't notice much frustration, if any, in McDavid as he tried to get back up to speed.

"He found ways to be productive with his speed," Button said. "It's easy to be at your best when you're feeling 100 per cent.

"How do you get 100 per cent out of 80 per cent? I think Connor McDavid found a way to get the very best out of 80 per cent or 85 per cent."

McDavid became the best player Canada had. Groulx said Monday morning he noticed the Newmarket, Ont., native's confidence was back.

"He plays with speed and he's challenging the defenceman each time he's on the ice and he's a threat," Groulx said. "So it's good to see him back."

With Canada looking for its first goal medal since '09, there was plenty of pressure on McDavid to be on. No one who has watched him could possibly say he fell short of lofty expectations.

"He most definitely belongs in this tournament as one of the best players," Hockey Canada president and CEO Tom Renney said. "I think you're seeing a young player hitting stride and really living up to the billing of being an outstanding hockey player.

"The beauty of Connor, if I may, is to suggest that it's all about the team for him, too, at this point in time, and that's what makes him special."

McDavid has been part of a tight-knit group that seemed to enjoy everything together, from morning soccer activities to prime-time hockey games. The leadership group of Lazar, Reinhart, McDavid, Domi and Josh Morrissey deserves credit for that.

And while Reinhart may have been the MVP through the preliminary games, McDavid busted out when it mattered most. He was so effective in coming back, McDavid surprised many viewers but not himself.

McDavid didn't know what would happen.

"It's hard to even play world juniors and with coming back I'd been missing so many days I didn't know what to expect," McDavid said. "But I just stayed patient with it and just been trying to work hard every day and do all the right stuff to make sure that I'm feeling good."

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