February 23rd, 2024

Canada in an unfamiliar position ahead of world junior opener against Finland

By Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press on December 25, 2023.

Heading into the 2024 world junior hockey championship, however, Canada isn't viewed as the favourite — at least from the outside. And it suits them just fine. Canada's Nate Danielson (9) takes a shot on goal during practice at the Scandinavium arena prior to the start of the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship in Gothenburg, Sweden on Monday, Dec. 25, 2023. Canada will face Finland in their first game on Dec. 26. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christinne Muschi

GOTHENBURG, Sweden – Macklin Celebrini hasn’t been an underdog many times in his life.

The same goes for Canada whenever the country hits the ice for an international tournament.

Heading into the 2024 world junior hockey championship, however, the powerhouse nation isn’t viewed as the favourite – at least from the outside.

And it suits the group just fine.

“We’re not really focusing on that,” said Celebrini, a 17-year-old centre from Vancouver expected to go No. 1 at June’s NHL draft. “That’s just all opinions. We’re looking forward to get going and prove who we are.”

That’s a team missing a lot of eligible NHL talent, but one that showed what it could be in its last pre-tournament game.

Canada trailed the United States, which has a number of returning players for the under-20 event and is viewed as the country to beat, 5-3 after two periods on Saturday before roaring back over the final 20 minutes to force overtime in a 6-5 loss.

“The energy and the crispness of that third period sparked something,” head coach Alan Letang said following Monday’s practice at Gothenburg’s Scandinavium arena. “There was a moment in the second when the bench was a little bit quiet and I looked at (assistant Shaun Clouston) and I was like, ‘There’s not a lot of talk here.’ We had to address it.

“They came out with that energy and that passion we needed.”

Letang will be looking for that and more when Canada meets Finland in its tournament opener Tuesday (8:30 a.m. ET).

“They want to shoot, they want to attack the net,” he said of the Finns. “Our puck management will be huge. We put pressure on the U.S. If we can put pressure on them, I think we can turn some pucks over and be successful.”

Celebrini said that final period against the Americans showed what the group is capable of at the annual showcase.

“Something we’re gonna focus on and try to replicate,” he said. “But even when things don’t go your way, you gotta find ways to win. We have the group to do it.”

Canada captain Fraser Minten said his team hasn’t paid attention to outside prognostications.

“I don’t think we’re too worried about that or even hear that,” said the Toronto Maple Leafs prospect. “We believe we’re right at the top. We should be right at the top as a gold-medal favourite.”

Mathis Rousseau, meanwhile, won the battle to start the first game in net for Canada ahead of Scott Ratzlaff and Samuel St-Hilaire.

“Workhorse,” Letang said. “He’s come in and grabbed that spot.”

The goaltender from Boisbriand, Que., who was passed over through all seven rounds of the last two NHL drafts, is looking forward to his opportunity in the spotlight.

“You don’t really believe that you’re going to be here growing up,” Rousseau said. “Now you’re here. You don’t fully get the full grasp of the moment, but it’s pretty incredible.”

Canada’s group includes the Finns, hosts Sweden, Latvia and Germany. The other side of the bracket has the U.S., Czechia, Slovakia, Switzerland and Norway.

The Canadians have those well-documented NHL roster absences – including Connor Bedard and Adam Fantilli – but did get reinforcements from the Boston Bruins when they sent centre Matthew Poitras to the national team.

“A lot of excitement,” said the 19-year-old from Brooklin, Ont. “Hopefully get to bed and not be thinking about the game too much. Really ready to go get going.”

Letang saw a quicker, more inspired Canada in its final tune-up.

Favourite or not, he wants the same approach against Finland as the North Americans start their climb towards a potential third straight gold medal.

“We know in that room what our identity is, how we want to play,” he said. “If we play that way, we’ll like the results.”

CAPTAIN CANUCK

Minten, who suited up four times with the Leafs before returning to junior after making the club out of training camp, was named captain Sunday night.

“Nice to be recognized as a leader,” said the 19-year-old centre from Vancouver. “Very proud and honoured to wear the ‘C’ here for Canada.”

FORGING BONDS

Celebrini said the group has grown close since travelling to Europe following selection camp in Oakville, Ont.

“That’s what happens when you spend the holidays together,” he said. “We’ve had to be a little family. We’ve bonded together and created a great team.”

LUNEAU IN HOSPITAL

Letang said defenceman Tristan Luneau, an Anaheim Ducks prospect expected to be a key part of the blue line before contracting a viral infection that forced Canada to call in a replacement, remains in hospital.

“Not an ideal situation,” said the coach.

Members of Luneau’s family are expected in Sweden soon, but Letang added he’s in good spirits and should be out of hospital in the next day or two.

“He’s in our thoughts,” Letang said. “He’ll be cheering.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 25, 2023.

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