KOSICE, Slovakia – A year ago, Chris Stewart was waiting for a call from Canada that never came.
Not only did an invitation to the IIHF World Hockey Championship arrive this time around, it's come with a big opportunity. The 23-year-old forward has been slotted on a line with John Tavares and Jeff Skinner that is expected to be relied upon heavily throughout the event.
The job description given to Stewart is pretty straightforward.
“They're both skilled guys who are going to control the puck and I'm going to be that big power forward that just goes in and makes room for them,” he said after Saturday's practice at Steel Arena.
They were only together for part of Friday's 4-1 victory over Belarus because coach Ken Hitchcock was juggling lines with only 11 healthy forwards at his disposal.
The arrival of James Neal will give the lineup more stability for Sunday's game against France (TSN, 10:15 a.m. ET). He'll line up with Rick Nash and Matt Duchene, allowing Stewart to take a permanent spot with Tavares and Skinner. A third scoring unit featuring Jordan Eberle, Jason Spezza and Evander Kane makes Canada a pretty dangerous opponent.
Stewart scored 28 goals each of the last two seasons in the NHL and is proud to be wearing the Maple Leaf.
“First time ever,” he said. “Last year I was one of those fringe guys and didn't get the call. This year once we lost out, it was kind of in the back of my mind.”
It was a bit of an unusual season. A few weeks before the trade deadline in February, Stewart was part of a multi-player blockbuster trade that saw him sent from Colorado to St. Louis.
The move caught him by surprise – “I bought a house in Denver and thought I was a big piece of the puzzle there” – but he felt at home almost immediately with the Blues, in part because he moved into the same condo building several teammates already called home.
Among them are defencemen Alex Pietrangelo and Carlo Colaiacovo, both of whom are part of this Canadian team.
Colaiacovo was one of the late additions and arrived in Europe on Saturday along with Neal and goaltender Jonathan Bernier.
Pietrangelo was thrilled to see his close friend Colaiacovo make the trip.
“We get made fun of a lot,” said Pietrangelo. “We spend a lot of time together in St. Louis. He kind of took me under his wing, if you want to put it that way. We played together almost the whole year this year so we kind of built a chemistry on the ice and we live down the hall from each other.
“So you get the chemistry off the ice, too.”
One of the strengths of the French team that will face Canada is the growing chemistry among its players. They've been training together for the last three weeks and nearly upset Switzerland in their tournament opener, failing to capitalize on a number of good offensive chances before losing 1-0 in overtime.
Former NHL goaltender Cristobal Huet is the backbone of a young team that also features forward Stephane Da Costa, who played four games with the Ottawa Senators after signing as a NCAA free agent in April. They'll be looking for an upset.
“We're not just going to throw the skates out on the ice,” said France coach Dave Henderson. “We got out every game to compete and try to win.
“Whether it's Canada, Russia, we'll see what happens at the end of the game. We are going to try and win every game we play – no sense playing if we don't.”
James Reimer will get his second straight start in goal for Canada after making 21 saves against Belarus. He hasn't officially been handed the No. 1 job, but it appears to be his to lose.
“He looks really good,” said Hitchcock. “It looks like he's ready for the heat.”
The coach is also looking to create some balanced scoring units.
Eberle had two goals against Belarus while playing with the speedy Kane and veteran Spezza. Neal's arrive allows Nash to shift to the right side with Duchene at centre.
Then there's Stewart, who will be looking to use his speed and six-foot-two, 228-pound frame to make life easier for Skinner and Tavares.
“He uses his size and he doesn't panic when he's getting physical,” Hitchcock said of Stewart. “That, to me, is an example of a power forward – not just a guy who goes to the net, but a guy that hangs on to (the puck), makes a good play with it and doesn't throw it away because he's getting some heat.”
Pietrangelo is also a big fan, labelling his arrival in St. Louis as “something that we needed.”
“He knows how to find the back of the net,” said Pietrangelo.
“He's a good guy to have, especially on the power play.
“A real big body. I didn't like playing against him when we played Colorado so it's nice to have him on our side.”
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