It was around 10:45 pm in Riga, Latvia, but in Ottawa, Ontario, it was around 3:45 pm on Sunday when Nick Paul tapped in the overtime and gold medal-winning goal on a feed from Connor Brown to end the 2021 International Ice Hockey Federation’s (IIHF) Men’s World Hockey Championship. This wasn’t the only significant play from Ottawa Senators players during the tournament, however. With Brown, Paul, and the young Jacob Bernard-Docker all playing for Team Canada at this year’s tournament, here are the three biggest takeaways for Senators fans from the 10 games.
3. JBD Gains More Experience in High Pressure Games
Bernard-Docker was a late addition to the Senators’ lineup this season after finishing the college hockey season with the University of North Dakota. Similarly, he was a late addition to the Team Canada roster, but this time because an injury to Kevin Bahl required a replacement. Team Canada was the third team he suited up for in this remarkably unique season for the young player.
He played in all 10 games for Team Canada and averaged 8:35 minutes per game, according to the tournament stat sheet. Veterans Sean Walker, Mario Ferraro, and Troy Stecher carried the defensive group, averaging at least 20 minutes per game each. The surprise fourth defenseman to round out this top four was 2021 draft prospect Owen Power, who earned the trust of coach Gerard Gallant quickly and averaged 20:07 minutes per game.
Despite playing under 10 minutes per game and beyond the reality of winning the gold medal, this was a positive experience for the young Bernard-Docker. If you see the situation and his role for what it was, a third-pair defenseman on a men’s national team after playing primarily college hockey this season with limited time in the NHL, it’s hard to argue that he’s not taken an important step in his development. Most significantly, he gained experience playing with a team that had to play from behind and work to get themselves back into contention and play in high-pressure games. He’ll still start no higher than the Senators’ third pair if he makes the team out of camp next season, but it was exciting to watch him face the challenges of this unique situation while having the familiar faces of Paul and Brown to lean on. It’s a much-deserved offseason for this young traveler.
2. “Nick Paul Does It All”
Connor Brown’s characterization of Paul is fitting and meaningful, coming from a teammate who has been described in much the same way. Brown has been the middle-six forward throughout his career who is relied on defensively and asked to chip in a goal or two until he started leading the Senators in goals and Team Canada in assists. Paul had a goal and two assists before his tournament winner on Sunday, which was arguably one of the biggest goals of his professional career.
His defensive work shouldn’t be undervalued, however, considering the difficult start the team had. With an 0-3 start on the tournament and only scoring two goals through the first three games (one of which was from Paul), they needed more offence without coming at the expense of defensive structure. It sounds obvious, but Paul became a central figure in this, getting shuffled around with different linemates and taking faceoffs to balance the defensive reliability of each line. He also provided a confident presence on the penalty kill and helped the team stifle 22 of 24 power play opportunities from opposing teams for an excellent 91.67 percent for the tournament.
His offensive hands were also displayed on a shorthanded rush during a penalty kill midway through the third period while Canada was down 2-1 in the gold medal game. With possession gained in their own zone, Paul dashed out to centre ice to receive a breakout pass and challenge the last Finnish defenseman back. With speed, he pressured the defenseman head-on and made a nifty move to first drag the puck to his right to entice the defender to take a swipe. Paul quickly slid the puck under the defender’s stick to his strong side. With the defenseman committing to the swipe and moving to Paul’s right, Paul opened space on his left to get a clear shot on the Finnish goaltender from the top of the hash marks.
His shot went back across the ice towards the goaltender’s left toe. The goaltender made the save to maintain the lead, but Paul’s confidence and skill on the penalty kill were evident. This was not an unusual sighting for Senators fans as Paul, who tallied four shorthanded points in the 2020-21 season, only trailed Connor Brown on the Senators (five shorthanded points, all goals) in this category and was tied for third across the league. It’s clear that the two are very similar players and are excellent examples of the benefits of support. When given the opportunity and the confidence of their coaching staff, they perform and continue to add to their game. Paul is a versatile player and, with the confidence gained at this tournament, he will be a key grounding force on this Senators team moving forward.
1. Connor Brown Can Drive Nearly Any Line
I’ve already spoken with much praise for Brown, but there’s a bit more to add if you’ll follow me through. He led the tournament in points (16 points over 10 games) and assists with 14, which is double what the next closest player had (USA’s Connor Garland at 7). He assisted on all three of Canada’s goals in the final and likely would have been credited with an assist on the one goal waved off in the second period after an offside challenge. His shot on net created the rebound in that case. His first assist in the final was nearly identical to the one called back, a shot on net that produced a rebound that Maxime Comtois buried.
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His second assist came on the power play and was the result of much patience. Brown was clearly the funnel through which all plays and pucks were going through, but the Finnish penalty kill had closed all lanes for a good 5-10 seconds. After circling without panic, he moved the puck deep to Comtois in front of the net, who popped it between his legs to Adam Henrique, who timed his approach to the crease perfectly for a tap in.
The third assist was, of course, on the game-winner. Paul lost the faceoff but had the forethought to step around the Finnish centre and cut off the pass back to the defender. From there, it was a classic two-on-one for Brown and Paul. Outwaiting and drawing the defenseman in yet again, Paul tossed off a pass to Brown wide open on the goaltender’s right side. As they approached the crease, Brown corralled the pass from Paul in his skates and, with the goalie committing to challenging Brown and perhaps expecting him to shoot, Brown got one more pass back across the crease to Paul waiting to tap the puck into the empty net.
Someone could write a much longer article breaking down the rest of his 11 assists from the tournament. But the main point here is that Brown is an elite playmaker. Yes, the ice size was bigger, and yes, the teams weren’t all comprised of NHL-calibre players, but he drove the top line of the gold medal-winning team and arguably deserves more power play minutes with the Senators in order to take advantage of his vision. The issue for Brown becomes overuse. He can’t play 30 minutes a game and make it through a full 82-game season, so he is perhaps still more valuable on the penalty kill where fewer players excel. Further, let the young stars continue to find chemistry on the top line and have Brown step in when needed. He can provide defensive stability and drive a line with young Tim Stützle and potentially Shane Pinto next season.
It was an unbelievable turnaround for Team Canada at the 2021 IIHF Men’s World Championship, and Senators fans should be proud of Bernard-Docker, who gained some great experience, and Nick Paul and Connor Brown, who played significant roles throughout the tournament.
Sports and music writer, covering the Ottawa Senators for The Hockey Writers. Lecturer at King’s University College. Loves a good day at the outdoor rink.