Team Canada's Connor McDavid settles in after being 'as rusty as you can possibly get'

Neate Sager
McDavid gets stopped in tight by Sweden's Samuel Ward on Sunday (Fred Chartrand, The Canadian Press)
McDavid gets stopped in tight by Sweden's Samuel Ward on Sunday (Fred Chartrand, The Canadian Press)

A good Connor McDavid moment is in the build-up, not the payoff.

The 17-year-old prodigy essayed a few over the course of his return from a 40-day layoff due to a fracture in his right hand, although he notched just a single third-period assist during Canada's 5-2 world junior championship pre-championship win against Sweden in front of 13,826 at Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa on Sunday. After extensively testing his hand in warmup, McDavid took the body early. He had a couple golden opportunities go awry, particularly a wraparound try in the third period when his shot hit a defender and he put the rebound wide. That could yield results down the line.

"I thought it went pretty well," McDavid said. "We [he and wings Curtis Lazar and Nick Ritchie] had a lot of zone time and I had some pretty good chances, good looks and we moved the puck around pretty well. It was good for our first game playing together.

"Not playing in 40 days, you're about as rusty as you can possibly get," added McDavid, who was injured when he struck the boards while engaged in a fight in an OHL game on Nov. 11. "My legs felt pretty good. The game speed was pretty high. Some plays happened pretty quickly. Overall I felt all right."

Sweden, whose young lineup was rendered even younger without the Philadelphia Flyers' Robert Hagg on the blueline, wasn't the strongest opposition. However, when it had its strongest period in the second, McDavid began to kick it up a notch. There was a long sequence in that frame where McDavid showed his ingenuity with a banked pass off the back of the net to Nick Ritchie that extended in the cycle.

In the third, McDavid knocked a checker's stick out of his hands as he accelerated through centre before finding Shea Theodore off the rush for a goal. Considering the length of his layoff, every indication is that McDavid could be in full flight by the time of Canada's Pool B opener against Slovakia on Friday.

"I thought he was a little rusty at first," coach Benoît Groulx said. "As the game went along I thought he showed good things out there, speed. He went by a couple defencemen, took pucks to the net. I thought he had a great second half to the game. It's good to see him back playing his style after such a long time being sidelined.

"He was involved physically," Groulx added. "Obviously they wanted to play him hard. It's good to see that it's out of the way. He knows, 'I'm back now, I can do this.' "

Of course, the expectations on McDavid are such that any time he doesn't produce points is going to raise questions. Finland and Team USA, which Canada faces in its last two round-robin games, could also pose a formidable challenge in the defensive zone. That is where the hope is that Lazar can provide a boost.

"He’s so hard on himself," Lazar said of McDavid. "I’m telling him to just relax and have fun. I had a partial break there and I probably should have tried to score but I tried to just lay it in there for a rebound for him.

It was good for him to get that assist. We’re going to need a big part of this team to be successful and I just want him to go out there and play."

McDavid, though, wasn't about the publicly grade himself on a curve. As a top-end player whom Canada's brass was adamant about not using in a game until he was at 100 per cent, he knows he has to be his own worst critic. 

"I'm a competitive guy and you want to be the best you can be," he said.

The bottom line is McDavid possesses a much greater confluence of strength along with skill and speed than he did as a 16-year-old on Canada's fourth-place team 12 months ago in Sweden. That should allow the Newmarket native to make good on what's demanded of him as the '1B' centre alongside Sam Reinhart. He's much more up to the meeting the rigours of playing against foes up to two years older.  

"I thought I was pretty good on faceoffs tonight," McDavid noted. "I didn't know that how that was going to be after not taking any for a couple days. That's something that comes with bigger and having a stronger upper body." 

Neate Sager is a —writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.