Patrick Sharp knew exactly what he was getting when Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was placed on a line with him and Jamie Benn at the IIHF World Hockey Championship.
“He had a lot of success against the Blackhawks this year, I'm familiar with the type of player he is,” Sharp said of Nugent-Hopkins. “He's a great skater, he handles the puck well and he can finish when he gets an opportunity as well.”
It showed on Monday as the newly formed unit piled up the points during a 7-2 victory by Canada over France.
Nugent-Hopkins opened the scoring less than two minutes into the game and went on to add another goal and an assist while Sharp finished with a goal and four assists and Benn had two goals and an assist.
“It was a fun game,” said Nugent-Hopkins.
The No. 1 overall pick from last year's NHL draft was the first to admit he struggled in Canada's first two games of the tournament. Against France, Sharp took a number of faceoffs in his place — he and Nugent-Hopkins rotated between centre and wing — and the trio was dangerous virtually every time it was on the ice.
“It's a transition coming overseas,” said Nugent-Hopkins. “I didn't want to get down on myself because it's a long tournament.”
Canada got exactly what it wanted from a game against one of the weaker teams at the event. Coach Brent Sutter thought Canada's overall defensive play was much better than Saturday's 5-4 overtime loss to the United States and his line juggling yielded some immediate results.
All and all, it was a step forward.
“There's still room for improvement,” said Sutter.
Jordan Eberle and Corey Perry also scored for Canada (2-0-1) while Devan Dubnyk made 19 saves and picked up the victory in his first ever start at the world championship.
Brian Henderson and Alexandre Rouleau replied for France (1-2-0).
Playing in a near-empty Hartwall Arena — announced attendance was 3,415 — there wasn't much energy in the building. France didn't even start its top goalie for the game, choosing instead to send in 39-year-old Fabrice Lhenry while resting Cristobal Huet for later in the tournament.
However, the goal barrage could end up being quite important for a Canadian team that will face tough games against Switzerland and host Finland later in the week.
“We're growing together,” said Benn.
Nugent-Hopkins, Sharp and Benn, with two, scored early and often — helping Canada race out to a 4-0 lead in the first 18 minutes. They were clearly thrilled to be playing together.
“It's always nice to get a few like that,” said Sharp. “We saw a number of guys score tonight. That's big for confidence going forward in the tournament.”
France got on the board before the end of the first period. Nugent-Hopkins wasn't able to handle a pass in his own zone and Henderson quickly beat Dubnyk at 19:22.
Eberle stretched the Canadian advantage to 5-1 on a power-play just over 13 minutes into the second but Rouleau converted a turnover just 30 seconds later. It was a big goal for the defenceman, who represented Canada at the 2003 world junior championship and received his French citizenship earlier this year.
“It was strange for me at the start,” said Rouleau. “During the warmup, I was looking at the other side of the ice and I was looking at the red jersey with the Maple Leaf on it. I have played for that Canadian jersey but know I am proud of wearing this blue jersey.”
Canada buckled down in the third period and was able to close out a comfortable win. Nugent-Hopkins and Perry added third-period goals to make it a 7-2 victory — the same margin the Americans beat France by to open the tournament.
Even though tougher games will follow, Sutter took it as a sign that the Canadian team is trending in the right direction.
“The challenge is for us to be in a mindset to be mentally strong enough to understand that this isn't about our opponents we're playing,” said Sutter. “It's about how we have to become a team and how we have to play. ... We're on the way.”
Notes: Defenceman Kyle Quincey played his first game for Canada after joining the team Sunday. ... Canadian forward Jeff Skinner was credited with nine shots. ... Duncan Keith logged a game-high 20:45 of ice time ... The French federation is bidding to have Paris co-host the 2017 world championship with Berlin.
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