Canada seems to have found its top line at the IIHF World Hockey Championship. And the timing couldn't be much better.
Jason Spezza and James Neal each scored with assists from Rick Nash on Saturday as Canada continued its unbeaten run at the tournament with a 3-2 victory over Norway.
The trio was first put together during the third period of Friday's shootout win over the United States and it seems to have found some quick chemistry. With plenty of youngsters on the roster, coach Ken Hitchcock plans to rely heavily on three of his more veteran players.
"This is a men's tournament," said Hitchcock. "If you expect kids to go and win games for you, (it's not good). We've had great play by our kids but at the end of the day, as you get further along, it's men.
"We needed some of our veteran players to have better offensive output and to put those three guys together worked well today."
The big unit was too much for the Norwegians to contain. All three men bring plenty of size - Neal is the smallest at six-foot-two, 208 pounds - and they're comfortable controlling the puck in the offensive end.
"As the games get more important, we know we're going to play a lot of minutes and have to hang on to the puck," said Spezza. "That's how you wear these teams down."
John Tavares had the other goal for Canada (5-0) while Ken Andre Olimb and Marius Holtet replied for Norway (3-2).
The Canadians are heading into the stretch run at the tournament. After wrapping up the round robin against Sweden on Monday, the team travels to Bratislava in need of three straight wins to achieve its goal of winning gold.
"It gets really quick right now," said Hitchcock. "This thing is over next weekend."
There are still some important decisions to be made. Jonathan Bernier made his first start of the tournament in place of James Reimer on Saturday and at least gave Hitchcock some food for thought with a 25-save performance.
While it wasn't perfect - "You can't let that puck go in," Bernier said of Norway's second goal - Reimer has also been beaten by a couple soft shots in his last two starts. Hitchcock will take some time to decide which of them faces Sweden.
"I'd like to sleep on it for a day," he said. "I was impressed with Bernier, I was impressed with his composure. I'd like to think on it a day before I make the decision. I'll kind of waffle until some time tomorrow."
Canada received a bit of a scare from the plucky Norwegians, who scored goals 1:13 apart in the third period after Neal had made it 3-0 with his first of the tournament.
It was important for the 23-year-old winger to find the scoresheet. He was snake-bitten down the stretch with the Pittsburgh Penguins - scoring twice in 27 games - and failed to convert on two breakaways earlier in the game against Norway.
"It's been tough," said Neal. "I've been playing well and getting opportunities but just haven't been able to find the back of the net. Tonight I was right there again - you get those things going through your mind where you can't seem to score, but I got a great pass and managed to find a way."
The Norwegians brought just one NHL player here, but have proven to be a very tough opponent. They put on a shot-blocking clinic during upset wins over Sweden and Switzerland earlier in the tournament and repeatedly threw themselves in front of pucks again.
One of the reasons Spezza let out such an enthusiastic reaction after opening the scoring at 15:26 of the first period was because he wanted to inspire his teammates against a lower-profile opponent.
"Sometimes you've got to get yourself jacked up to play in these games against teams where you don't know anybody," said Spezza. "It's easier playing against the U.S. and Sweden and Russia, teams where you know all the players on the other team. You've got to try to manufacture a little emotion sometimes."
Tavares stretched the lead to 2-0 just after the midway point of the game with a highlight-reel move. He split the Norwegian defence and fought off a couple hooks before beating Lars Haugen.
The 20-year-old has quietly had a strong tournament for Canada with a team-leading four goals and eight points - numbers made even more impressive by the fact nine of the team's forwards are averaging more time on the ice than him.
Tavares is also one of the six players who were part of the team that finished seventh a year ago. This has been a much better experience so far.
"We feel real good where our game's at - compared to last year when we were still trying to find our game at this point," said Tavares. "I think it's important for us to feel that way."
Notes: Bernier's last start for Canada was at the 2008 world junior championship ... Norwegian captain Ole-Kristian Tollefsen was on the ice for more than half of the second period, playing 10:51 ... Neal was named Canada's best player while Haugen received that award for Norway ... Announced attendance at Steel Arena was 4,978.
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