The bottles were popping and the champagne flowing as mayhem erupted in the Blue Jays’ clubhouse in the aftermath of their beatdown of Boston on Friday night at the Rogers Centre.
EDMONTON — Teams always say the same thing: At a short tournament, you’re just trying to improve with each game. Well, Canada didn’t just get better in their third contest of the 2022 World Junior Hockey Championship, they got downright spectacular.
Kent Johnson authored the signature moment of the event, Mason McTavish is officially on record watch and Jack Thompson quietly collected three assists as Canada overcame its first deficit of the world juniors to defeat Czechia 5-1 on Saturday night at Rogers Place.
Johnson, the lanky Columbus Blue Jackets prospect and former Michigan Wolverine, accomplished a lot with his lacrosse-style goal that has become entrenched in hockey vernacular as ‘The Michigan.’ With one quick stuff of the puck under the bar, Johnson paid homage to his old college, injected real life into a WJC tournament can use every bit of juice it can get and may have also put a dollar or two in his head coach’s pocket.
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“I won the coaches’ poll on who was going to be the first player to do it between him and [McTavish],” Canadian bench boss Dave Cameron said.
Of course, all those things are secondary to the fact that, with precisely 60 seconds to go in the opening frame, Johnson’s outrageous tally provided Canada with a 2-1 lead after it had fallen behind 1-0 by giving up a shorthanded marker to Martin Rysavy just 46 seconds into a five-minute power play. The squad seemed rattled after the shorty, failing to muster much with the man advantage after Jaroslav Chmelar had received the boot for his blindside hit on fellow New York Rangers prospect Brennan Othmann.
And while Canada did manage the get on even terms when McTavish tipped home his first of two goals, Czech goalie Tomas Suchanek was standing on his head and starting to give the sense this could be one of those nights for a Canadian squad that was robbed on a handful of five-star chances.
“Unbelievable,” Othmann said Suchanek’s play early on. “I looked over at [McTavish] and I was like, ‘Okay, we’ve got a game.’
In fact, moments before Johnson’s goal, Suchanek denied him on a one-timer with a positively silly glove save. After the ensuing face-off, though, the puck found its way behind the net, where Johnson swooped in, scooped it up and flung it into the net, sending what was visibly the largest crowd of the tournament into a frenzy.
“It happened pretty quick,” Johnson said. “I think I got a loose puck behind the net and there was no D-man on the right post, so I just went for it.”
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The goal-scorer’s reaction was just as animated as that of his teammates and the fans, not just because he’d scored the type of goal he told Othmann in training camp he wanted to try if the opportunity ever came, but because he finally punched through after being denied by Suchanek and going without a goal in Canada’s first two games.
“I would have been pretty pumped for a goal off my skate, too,” Johnson joked.
The night really marked a leap for Johnson’s entire line, which features him on the left side, Tyson Foerster in the middle and Logan Stankoven on the right flank. The only goal from any of those guys previously came from Stankoven in the form of a power-play marker in Thursday’s 11-1 win over Slovakia. While Canada’s had more than enough offence to get by, there was no doubt this second unit had to find another gear and it did just that — Johnson set up Foerster for a beautiful one-timer to close out the scoring — against the best team Canada has seen so far.
“That was a really good step for us,” Johnson said. “We were all over the puck tonight.”
If the second line’s positive results were a welcomed change, it was the same ol’ same ol’ for McTavish on the top line with Othmann and Connor Bedard. While nothing could top Johnson’s eye-popping goal, McTavish made it 4-1 halfway through the game when he took a feed that was deftly feathered by Bedard and broke in alone on Suchanek.
The Canadian captain opened up the goalie’s wickets and slid the puck into the back of the net for his sixth tally in three contests. It’s very possible McTavish still has four games to go in Edmonton, meaning the all-time Canadian record of 10 goals — both John Anderson and Dale McCourt had that many at the 1977 event — is well within reach.
As pretty as McTavish’s second goal was, his first one was a greasy re-direction on a point shot created by Thompson. The defenceman, who is among the nine new faces on this team that were not part of the original Christmastime squad, did a great job of walking the blueline and getting the puck through a maze of bodies toward the net, where McTavish could deflect it home for the type of tally you often need to get things going against a hot tender. That play combined with his other pair of helpers and some key shot blocks underscored why Cameron has been so impressed with Thompson so far.
“He’s just a steady guy,” the coach said. “He made a big play on the [first] goal to get the puck through to the net.”
Maybe Canada was always going to find a way to win this contest. After all, the club did end up with 57 shots on goal. Still, even going through that little bit of adversity — falling behind early, having to really work for it to beat a goalie — can help a team grow and make some progress toward that oft-cited goal of growing an inch with every day.
“Obviously when you have a five-minute power play and you go down 1-0 and don’t end up scoring, it can take the life out of you,” Bedard said. “But I thought we responded really well and it was cool to see our bounce-back.”
The Canadians were also clearly happy to see the impact their play had on a crowd that was much livelier than anything they’d experienced at this somewhat subdued summer event so far. The third period even brought about a few attempts at the wave, a sure sign the excitement is ramping up a bit as Canada will play its final preliminary-round game against Finland on Monday with top spot in the group almost certainly to be on the line.
“That’s real nice,” Cameron said of the support. “It’s quite a commitment for these guys to come in the summer, it’s real good hockey, it’s best-on-best, a lot of guys on all the teams are going to play in the National Hockey League, so it’s an easy decision to come to the games in my opinion.”
The Oilers were firing on most of their cylinders Friday. But they weren’t always sure which one was firing when, and where.
“I was trying to out of the way,” pleaded Kane, “but those type of things happened. First pre-season game — I guess that’s to be expected.”
McDavid was slow to get up, but never missed a shift. He was flying as usual, but like the rest of his teammates his rushes ended a few feet before the goal line, with more red faces than red goal lights.
“That’s probably a good sign. You want to save a couple for the regular season,” laughed Kane. “So as long as you get your chances and you’re playing in the O-zone — our line alone probably had six or seven Grade A’s.”
With a vastly superior lineup dressed, Edmonton dominated as you’d expect. The high danger scoring chances were listed as 13-4 on naturalstattrick.com.
On a night where only one forward — Luke Esposito — registered an even-strength point, defenceman Brett Kulak delivered the winner on an innocent looking point blast with 11 minutes left to play. Kailer Yamamoto set Leon Draisaitl up for Edmonton’s other goal, a shorty.
They came to see a blowout, but “first star” Dan Vladar had other ideas, thwarting an Oilers attack that had some polish, but zero finish.
“I thought we hung in there,” said Flames head coach Darryl Sutter. “We left our top three centres at home. That was a big difference.”
Edmonton dressed all of its top nine forwards, six of its top seven defencemen (minus Tyson Barrie), and started No. 1 Jack Campbell. That was the good news.
The bad news, for most of those players, was this game marked their first pre-season minutes. And the rust showed.
Edmonton’s power play was close-but-no-cigar all night, making all kinds of plays but not finishing any of them. And at regular strength, it was much of the same: Plenty of shots on goal (38), but not much finish.
“Tip your hat to the goaltender,” Oilers coach Jay Woodcroft said. “We had numerous good looks (on the PP). Didn’t go in.
“We zipped it around. It was exactly what we wanted it to be, except we didn’t get the (finish).”
Credit Vladar with much of that. He was the difference between a close game and a blowout, leaving the Flames in great shape in their crease, with starter Jacob Markstrom at home. They have a solid backup in Vladar, and the promising Dustin Wolf slated to be the No. 1 for the new AHL Calgary Wranglers.
Darnell Nurse fought twice with one Mitch McLain, after McLain laid a hard hit on Kane in the third period. Not exactly a risk you love for your top defenceman, but part of the package with Nurse, who tends to fight only when taking care of business for a teammate.
“I mean, the first time was awesome. Really appreciate that,” Kane said. “The second time was a surprise because I was ready to go. So I think we’re all looking at each other what was going on there.”
In a league where some teams play six pre-season games, while others play eight, we often wonder how many games are truly required?
In Canada, teams like four home dates, and Friday night in Edmonton was an example of why. Rogers Place was virtually sold out, and with 18,000-plus people eating, drinking and having a good time, that kind of revenue surpasses any three regular-season home dates in Florida or San Jose
But outside of revenues — and yes, we know, it’s all about Hockey Related Revenue in the NHL — do we really need an eight-game pre-season schedule?
“I mean, I think it’s probably a little much,” admitted Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. “We played nine games in the past. It’s a lot of games.”
How many does Nugent-Hopkins require?
“Three to five, depending on how you feel,” he said. “You don’t want to come into the season unsure of how your game is, or unsure of how you’re feeling. But you also don’t want to come in fatigued or feeling tired. You want to be ready to go.”
McDavid says he requires three games, maybe four — depending on how he feels after the third one.
“I would tend to think that eight is too many. But, understanding that it’s a chance for lots of different guys to get looks,” opined McDavid. “I’ve had five years where you play four or five, I’ve had years where, you know, you don’t get any. You know, it’s kind of you kind of gotta be ready no matter what happens.”
The bottles were popping and the champagne flowing as mayhem erupted in the Blue Jays’ clubhouse in the aftermath of their beatdown of Boston on Friday night at the Rogers Centre.
It was the same Red Sox team that helped the Jays officially clinch a post-season berth by beating the Baltimore Orioles on Thursday, an off-day for Toronto.
The Blue Jays promised to throw themselves a bash and they did.
For the record, the Jays showed no mercy in handing the Red Sox a 9-0 loss Friday night, the first of a three-game series that will wrap up their final home stand before the post-season begins.
When the assembled media was allowed access to the jubilant clubhouse, the strains of Lil’ Wayne were being belted out. On the field, the Jays belted three home runs in support of Alek Manoah, who didn’t need much help on this night.
After the initial celebration in the clubhouse, the players gathered on the field for group pictures, to soak in the moment and swill more of the bubbly.
Given the recent history of the team and its itinerant existence during the onslaught of COVID, the scene was expected and justified. The Jays needed to exhale and they left no bottle unopened.
The Jays, however, still have games to be played — two more against the Bosox, then three in Baltimore — which will determine where they begin their wild-card series.
For fans of the team, they may have seen the last of Manoah, for the time being anyway.
What has been made abundantly clear is that the big right-hander must be on the mound when the playoffs begin. However, Manoah is lined up to pitch in the season’s final game — with the operative word being ‘needed.’ If Wednesday’s finale in Baltimore carries any home-field repercussions, turning to Manoah is a no-brainer.
The hope, however, is that home field will already be clinched with Manoah being a tabbed to start baseball’s second season. Heading into Saturday’s action, the Jays lead the Seattle Mariners by a game and a half, and the Tampa Bay Rays by two in the chase for wild-card seeding. The top WC team gets home field for the entire best-of-three series.
Manoah was marvelous Friday night against the Red Sox. He didn’t exactly steal the show, but he did show why he’s the ace of Toronto’s staff.
In the sixth, leadoff hitter Jarren Duran hit a broken-bat single to centre. Manoah then got Rafael Devers to ground into a double play and ended the inning ended with a meekly hit ground out by Xander Bogaerts.
Turns out it was the end of the line for Manoah, who was met with well-deserved congratulatory handshakes in the dugout.
Boston didn’t get its first base-runner in scoring position until in the top half of the fourth inning, when Devers and advanced to second on a wild pitch. But he would be left stranded after J.D. Martinez grounded out to second to end the inning.
With out in the fifth, Manoah induced a grounder behind first base to Abraham Almonte but was slow coming off the mound and wasn’t able to even take the throw. Almonte easily reached base as Boston recorded its first hit off Manoah.
VLAD THE IMPALER
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. belted one of his patented no-doubters in the third inning, a two-run blast that gave the home side a 4-0 lead.
For Vlad, it was his 31st long ball of the season to drive in his 94th and 95th runs of the season.
While he’s nowhere near last year’s 48-homer campaign, a hot-hitting Guerrero heading into the playoffs will go a long way in determining how deep Toronto can make a run.
Friday’s bomb was his first homer since Sept. 21 when the Jays were in Philly.
He ended the month of September with just four homers.
George Springer didn’t waste much time in getting on base. On the first pitch he saw from Boston starter Nick Pivetta, Toronto’s leadoff hitter hit a shot to centre for a single.
Up stepped Bo Bichette. On the second pitch Bichette saw, he stroked a single to left.
Springer and Bichette both advanced on a passed ball.
Springer would come around to score the game’s first run on a groundout by
Alejandro Kirk, who batted cleanup.
In the eighth inning, Bichette knocked in his 47th run of September to tie Tony Fernandez and Lloyd Moseby for the most in any calendar month in franchise history.
TO CELEBRATE IS GREAT
The Jays took to the field knowing they had already clinched a berth in the post-season when Boston defeated Baltimore on Thursday night.
The plan, according to interim manager John Schneider, was for the team to celebrate its accomplishment regardless of Friday night’s outcome.
“I think whenever you have a chance to do that you have to embrace it,” said Schneider prior to opening pitch. ”That doesn’t happen all the time and I can’t wait to have a good time with that group.”
For Bichette, who watched the Red Sox defeat the Orioles with teammate Santiago Espinal, the Jays have every right to bask in the glow of a playoff appearance.
“All the hard work paid off,’’ he said. “We put a lot in and we had high expectations of ourselves and we were able to accomplish it.
“There’s still more work to do, obviously, and we expect more but we definitely need to enjoy this.”
As part of the team’s recognition and acknowledgments to honour the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, a moment of silence was held.
The Survivors’ Flag was featured throughout Rogers Centre to honour survivors and all the lives impacted by the residential school system.
The anthem was performed in Blackfoot, English and French.
Kirk was behind the plate in the series opener serving as Manoah’s unofficial personal catcher.
In fact, only once hasn’t Kirk been Manoah’s battery-mate this season when the big right-hander was on the mound.
The pitcher-catcher combo seems to be working and there appears to be no discernible reason why the Blue Jays would deviate from this pattern once the post-season begins.
Danny Jansen, Toronto’s other catcher, was also in the lineup in the rare role as DH, batting eighth in the order.
TORONTO – Hey, Toronto Blue Jays, please complete the following sentence – clinching a post-season berth on an off-day is …
“… weird, but awesome,” said George Springer. “I mean, it just allows you to breathe a little bit, you know, allows you to say, well, we accomplished our goal. Yeah, obviously you might want to do it in a little bit of a different way, but at the end of the day, who cares? It’s awesome to say we’re going to the playoffs no matter what.”
“… well, clinching is great, but I would say not ideal,” said Bo Bichette. “It definitely felt weird not being with the team and not celebrating after the game. I mean, that’s part of it. When you’re young and you’re watching the people we watched, you’ve got the champagne showers and everything. We’ll get that opportunity (Friday). So, blessed either way.”
“… it didn’t happen because technically, we didn’t celebrate,” said Matt Chapman. “We’re celebrating (Friday). So clinching on an off day is not ideal, but manageable because we’re going to clinch (Friday).”
“… weird,” said Kevin Gausman. “In the moment, I really wished that we all would have been here and been able to watch it together. But either scenario would have been weird. If we would have came in, what if (the Baltimore Orioles) come back and win and then we all came in for no reason? So we just decided to wait until Friday.”
“… strange,” said Danny Jansen. “Kind of unfortunate, too. But we’re here now. It was a weird thing, for sure. It’s the first time in Blue Jays history. Probably doesn’t happen very often. It was a weird feeling for sure on the off-day.”
“… cool but a little weird, you know?” said Jordan Romano. “It’s definitely still special but I think it would’ve been a little better if all the boys were around and we were kind of in the moment. Still really cool. We’re all grateful for it. But yeah, a little different.”
“… odd,” said Tim Mayza. “Not your typical (way to) a post-season berth. It’s different, but so were the last two, three years of Blue Jays baseball. You go back to the ’20 clinching and the guys who were there said it was weird. You had an empty stadium in Buffalo. And even last year, we didn’t get back here until August. Then you make a run at the end and you fall just one game short. So I would say for the past few years of Blue Jays baseball, maybe this is typical, that it would happen on and off-day. But it’s fun. It’s exciting.”
“… still clinching,” said David Phelps. “The most important thing isn’t the champagne celebration, the most important thing is that we’re headed to the playoffs. Yeah, obviously we would have loved it after a win and been together for it. But our goal is to get to the post-season and win the World Series and that’s stop one.”
“… easy – we didn’t play,” said interim manager John Schneider. “It was a little weird. You become a Boston Red Sox fan for about three hours and then you turn it off. But we knew that was a possibility and covered all of our bases, but definitely different. But no matter how you do it, doing it is the most important part.”
There was no debating that on one of the more unique Friday’s in franchise history, as the Blue Jays returned to Rogers Centre with an ‘X’ by their name in the wild-card standings courtesy of an Orioles loss at Boston the previous afternoon, planned a post-game party, pounded the Red Sox 9-0 behind six shutout innings from Alek Manoah and then let it rip.
“I woke up and I was ready to go,” said Gausman. “My mind was on my bullpen, but my bullpen’s over so now all I’m focused on is watching Manoah shove and then go pop some bottles. That’s all I’m thinking about.”
In the aftermath, asked about his first champagne shake-and-spray, Manoah grinned.
“That was sick.”
Manoah allowed only two hits and was in total control, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. rocked his team-leading 31st homer of the season and Springer added a three-run shot to ensure the Blue Jays jumped into the party in style.
Raimel Tapia also went deep and Bichette added two singles, giving him a club record for hits in a month at 48, before a Rogers Centre crowd of 37,283 that enjoyed stress-free festivities. Yusei Kikuchi picked up from Manoah and closed things out for a three-inning save, his first in the majors and second of his career after collecting with the Seibu Lions in 2012.
“This party was scheduled and whether we won or lost. For me, it was let’s have a good time, but with a win, you know?” said Manoah. “I feel like it would have been really terrible to get our butt kicked out there and then have to come and party. The biggest thing was being able to just lock it in and make sure that the win comes first and then the party comes after.”
Work still remains for the Blue Jays (88-69) over the final week, starting with locking down the top wild-card spot, which they lead by 1.5 games over the Seattle Mariners (86-70), who beat Oakland 2-1 to clinch their first post-season berth since 2001, and two games over the Tampa Bay Rays (86-71), who also clinched with a 7-3 win at Houston.
In case it matters, Manoah is lined up to pitch Wednesday’s season finale at Baltimore, but the Blue Jays want to have the top spot secured by then and not have to contemplate whether to start their ace in order to host the wild-card round.
Hard to imagine them making that choice and while Schneider didn’t quite commit to saving Manoah for the wild-card round, saying “a lot can happen between now and then,” he later added, “if he’s on the mound in Game 1, that would be a really good thing for us.”
Manoah has now logged 196.2 innings over 31 starts with a 2.24 ERA, becoming one of the club’s most reliable arms. His 0.88 ERA in September is a franchise record. The Blue Jays are 18-13 when he starts.
Similarly important is figuring out if Lourdes Gurriel Jr., who did some running Friday as he works his way back from a left hamstring strain, and Santiago Espinal, who ramped up his baseball activities as he recovers from a left oblique strain, will be ready for the wild-card opener Oct. 7.
Their status will significantly impact how the post-season roster is constructed, while decisions on how to line up the rotation and how many relievers to carry also must be settled.
Five games remain to sort out those matters, which they can do knowing the heavy lifting is done and the achievement has been properly feted, the way it was in a pretty wild clubhouse.
The first bottles of champagne were uncorked as Endor’s Pump It Up blared on speakers and then, when Hot by Daddy Yankee and Pitbull followed, Teoscar Hernandez climbed atop a clubhouse table and began waving a pirate flag as his teammates skipped around.
“That was something Chappie brought up for every win we get,” Hernandez explained of their post-victory routine. “He said we were pirates and we’re going to take everything from everybody. So we started doing that every time we win. I’m always with the flag on the top of the table trying to pump everyone up.”
No challenge there and next the room went silent for Schneider.
“This is something you should never not celebrate,” he told the group. “Congratulations to you all. Unbelievable effort all season long. You guys are fucking incredible. Enjoy the shit out of this tonight.”
With that, more corks went flying.
Wave after wave of players ganged up on Guerrero, dousing him as payback, Manoah said, “for all the water he throws on everyone.”
“I tried to hide and avoid everything,” Guerrero said through interpreter Hector Lebron, “but everybody was dumping everything on me. That felt good. It was very emotional and let’s keep going.”
Amid the chaos, Chapman swung by his stall to make sure his glove was safely tucked behind the plastic sheets draped over the lockers and protected from the streams of bubbly flying in all directions. It was.
The pitchers circled pitching coach Pete Walker and emptied out dozens of beer cans on him.
Schneider, asked whether more champagne was on him than in him, said on him but that the ratio was about to change.
Guerrero, Bichette and Cavan Biggio, who rose through the farm system together as the sons of elite major-leaguers, winning championships and single-A Dunedin and double-A New Hampshire along the way, traded dousing and kind words.
“It’s something that we’ve all been through together and enjoyed together,” said Biggio.
The difference between the parties then and now?
“This is way better,” said Guerrero. “In the minor leagues, they give you just one bottle of champagne and that’s it. You’re out. Here there are a lot of bottles.”
Indeed, and even after the party took a brief pause for a team photo on the mound, it quickly moved back into the clubhouse and resumed.
“I feel like we handled it the right way,” said Ross Stripling, whose emergence after Hyun Jin Ryu’s season-ending elbow surgery was pivotal for the club. “We played the game. We took care of the business at hand and then came in here to have a good time.”
Added Schneider: “This is why you play. This is a lot of fun.”
Clinched on an off-day or not.
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