Canada looks poised to end its medal drought at the world junior hockey championship.
The only question is: Which colour?
Canada plays Slovakia in Sunday’s semifinals at the Air Canada Centre with the winner heading to Monday’s night’s gold medal game, the loser playing for bronze.
The Canadian players, probably wisely, aren’t about to make a prediction.
“You’re playing for your country,” said captain Curtis Lazar. “The passion, the pride. The rest will take care of itself.”
Canada last won gold in 2009, also on Canadian soil in Ottawa. The last medal, bronze, came in 2012. It’s been an unheard of drought for this hockey-mad nation which won it all five years in a row before this stretch.
“We have to take things one step at a time,” said forward Sam Reinhart, the Buffalo Sabres prospect who is leading the team in scoring. “We can’t look any further than that. Our pace has to stay up. We’re not satisfied with this yet.”
The team has been as much a pleasure to be around as it has to watch. The pressure of playing in NHL rinks before crowds hungry for a winner has rolled off the backs of the star-studded team.
Connor McDavid has taken most of the spotlight and, for the most part, lived up to the hype as the next Sidney Crosby. Max Domi has offered some lighthearted moments, scoring big goals and winning over fans with his earnest effort. Lazar has captained the team with aplomb while maintaining a happy-go-lucky approach to the game.
And there’s been no goaltending controversy, even though the way that coach Benoit Groulx rotated Zach Fucale and Eric Comrie usually leads to one. It will be Fucale — who hopes to erase memories of a disappointing semifinal loss in the last tournament — in net on Sunday night.
“Zach has the experience from last year,” Groulx told The Canadian Press, “so we feel very comfortable having him in net.”
With as much firepower as Canada has, and a smooth ride through the tournament so far, the biggest hurdle might be overconfidence. After all, Canada beat Slovakia 8-0 in the opener. But thinking the semifinal will be easy would be a mistake.
“They are a new team,” said Lazar. “They’ve definitely improved throughout this tournament. Saying that, we have as well.
“If we stick to our structure and system, we’re going to be just fine. But we can’t take them lightly. They have a great hockey club. They’re in the semis for a reason.”
If there’s a hallmark of this Canadian team, it’s depth. Every forward has picked up at least one point.
When Robby Fabbri got hurt — he suffered a high ankle sprain in the first period of Friday night’s win over Denmark — the little-used Brayden Point stepped in and scored his first goal of the tournament.
Leafs first-round pick Frederik Gauthier, on the team for his defensive prowess, set up Lawson Crouse’s first goal.
“That’s why we’re successful right now,” said Gauthier. “All lines can contribute.”
Canada has dominated in many ways:
• Fucale’s .985 save percentage and 0.33 goals against average lead the tournament.
• Lazar’s 75 per cent success rate in the faceoff circle leads (18 of 24) all players, while Gauthier has been Canada’s workhorse (38 of 57, 66.7 per cent)
• The penalty-killing unit has allowed only one goal on 17 chances. Slovakia’s penalty killers, though, have been just as good, killing off 17 of 18 chances. Sweden has killed off all 16 of its penalties.
The Canadian team is actually better now than it was when the tournament began with that Boxing Day blowout.
“We’re a lot better in the D-zone, in our transition game, chemistry-wise,” said Lazar. “We’re comfortable in our system, and that’s a big part of . . . why we’re successful. We don’t expect it to be a blowout like last time.
“They’ve got a great hockey club. We can’t take them lightly. It’s a matter of just going on the ice and playing out of our comfort zone. If we do that, we’ll be fine.”