McLean Celebrini has been an underdog many times in his life.
The same is true for Canada when the country hits the ice for an international tournament.
Heading into the 2024 World Junior Hockey Championships, the powerhouse nation is not seen as a favorite – at least from the outside.
It fits the group just fine.
“We're not really focused on that,” said Celebrini, a 17-year-old center from Vancouver who is expected to go No. 1 in the NHL draft in June. “These are just opinions. We're looking forward to moving forward and proving who we are.”
This is a team that is missing a lot of NHL-qualified talent, but showed what they can be in their last game before the tournament.
Canada trailed the United States, which has a number of players returning for the under-20 tournament and is seen as the nation to beat, 5-3 after two periods on Saturday before coming back strong in the final 20 minutes to force overtime in 6 minutes. -5 losses.
“The energy and fragility of that third period sparked something,” coach Alain Letang said after Monday’s practice at Gothenburg’s Scandinaviaum Arena. “There was a moment in the second half when the bench was a little quiet and I looked at (assistant Sean Clouston) and said: ‘There’s not a lot of talking here.’” We had to address it.
“They came out with that energy and passion that we needed.”
Letang will be looking for that and more when Canada takes on Finland in the tournament opener on Tuesday (8:30 a.m. ET).
“They want to shoot, they want to attack the net,” he said of the Finns. “Our puck management is going to be huge. We're putting pressure on the United States. If we can put pressure on them, I think we can have some success.”
Celebrini said the recent period against the Americans showed what the group is capable of in the annual show.
“Something we will focus on and try to replicate,” he said. “But even when things don't go your way, you have to find ways to win. We have the group to do that.”
Canada captain Fraser Minten said his team did not pay attention to outside speculation.
“I don't think we're too concerned about it or even hear about it,” the Toronto Maple Leafs prospect said. “We believe we are at the top. We should be at the top as favorites to win the gold medal.”
Meanwhile, Matisse Rousseau won the battle to start the first game in net for Canada ahead of Scott Ratzlaff and Samuel St-Hilaire.
“The backbone,” Letang said. “He came and grabbed this place.”
The goaltender from Boisbriand, Que., who has been taken through all seven rounds of the last two NHL drafts, is looking forward to his chance in the spotlight.
“You don't really believe you're going to be here when you grow up,” Russo said. “Now you're here. You don't fully understand the moment, but it's unbelievable.”
Canada's group includes Finns and hosts Sweden, Latvia and Germany. The other side of the arc is the United States, Czechia, Slovakia, Switzerland, and Norway.
The Canadiens have well-documented absences on the NHL roster — including Connor Bedard and Adam Fantelli — but they got reinforcements from the Boston Bruins when they sent center Matthew Poitras to the national team.
“A lot of excitement,” said the 19-year-old from Brooklyn, Ontario. “I hope you sleep and don't think about the game too much. I'm really ready to go.”
Letang saw Canada faster and more inspired in its final set-up.
Whether he likes it or not, he wants the same approach against Finland as the North American team begins its climb toward a third straight gold medal.
“We know in that room what our identity is and how we want to play,” he said. “If we play like this, we will like the results.”
Minten, who played four times for the Leafs before returning to the minors after the club exited training camp, was named captain Sunday night.
“It's nice to be recognized as a leader,” the 19-year-old center from Vancouver said. “Very proud and honored to wear the C here for Canada.”
Celebrini said the group has become close since traveling to Europe after the selection camp in Oakville, Ont.
“This is what happens when you vacation together,” he said. “We got to be a little family. We bonded together and created a great team.”
Lono is in the hospital
Defenseman Tristan Luneau, an Anaheim Ducks player expected to be a key part of the blue line before a viral infection forced Canada to call up a replacement, remains hospitalized, Letang said.
“It's not an ideal situation,” the coach said.
Lono's family members are expected to arrive in Sweden soon, but Letang added that he is in good spirits and should be released from the hospital in the next day or two.
“He is in our thoughts,” Letang said. “He'll cheer.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 25, 2023.
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