Canada set to open world juniors with tough test against the U.S.

OSTRAVA, Czech Republic — Canada eased into last year’s world junior hockey championship.

The host country led its opener against Denmark 3-0 after the first period, 8-0 through two and pumped home six more over the final 20 minutes of a 14-0 romp.

The 2020 curtain-raiser versus a familiar foe should provide a little more drama.

Canada kicks off the under-20 event’s latest instalment Thursday against the United States in a game loaded with skill, speed, familiarity, and perhaps biggest of all, intensity.

“Heated,” Canadian defenceman Jacob Bernard-Docker, a first-round pick of the Ottawa Senators, said of the rivalry. ”Two countries that don’t like each other playing against each other.”

Named as Canada’s captain just prior hitting the ice for Wednesday’s practice at Ostrava Arena, Barrett Hayton said watching their predecessors go to battle was part of growing up.

“That’s what you think about when you think of international competition,” said Hayton, who played 14 times with the Arizona Coyotes this season before being loaned to the Canadian setup for the world juniors. ”It’ll definitely be an intense game.”

The feeling on the other side is, of course, mutual.

“That rivalry’s one like no other,” said diminutive U.S. sniper Cole Caufield, a Montreal Canadiens’ first-rounder. “It’s country versus country. It’s not just a team versus a team. It’s going to be so special to be a part of it.”

“Neither team likes each other,” added American captain Mattias Samuelsson, a Buffalo Sabres’ prospect and the son of former NHL defenceman Kjell Samuelsson. ”It’ll be a good game to start.”

Viewed as the front-runners at the 10-team tournament, Canada and the U.S. sit in a difficult Group B with always-dangerous Russia, the host Czechs and a German program that continues to improve.

Group A, which is being contested in nearby Trinec, includes Sweden, Finland, Switzerland, Slovakia and Kazakhstan.

While in years past there would be build-up ahead of the Canada-U.S. showdown — often on New Year’s Eve — this matchup comes a lot sooner and will give one team a huge edge early.

“You’ve got a big test right away,” said Ty Dellandrea, a Dallas Stars’ first-rounder named as one of Canada’s alternate captains along with fellow centre Joe Veleno and defenceman Ty Smith. ”It’ll be good for us to bring our game to the highest level right off the start.”

The Americans beat their northern neighbours 2-1 outdoors in a shootout in round-robin play in Orchard Park, N.Y., at the 2018 event in their last meeting at the world juniors — Canada’s only blemish on the way to winning its 17th gold medal at the teenage showcase.

Other recent results saw the U.S. down Canada 5-4 in a shootout to capture the 2017 final in Montreal after also winning 3-1 in Toronto on New Year’s Eve.

“There’s no putting your foot into the water — you’ve got to go full in,” said U.S. centre Shane Pinto, another Ottawa first-round pick. “It’s going to be a tough one, but I think we’re ready.”

One of five returning players from last year’s stunning sixth-place finish in Vancouver and Victoria, Hayton said wearing the ‘C’ for Canada will be special.

“I was just incredibly honoured,” said the 19-year-old centre. ”You idolize the guys who play here.”

Canadian head coach Dale Hunter said Hayton’s professional experience played a factor in the decision.

“He’s a leader,” said Hunter, himself a former NHL captain. “On and off the ice he’s a character kid.”

The coach remained coy about Thursday’s starting goalie, but Nico Daws, a netminder with zero international experience prior to this month, is the odds-on favourite to get the nod.

The undrafted netminder was never realistically on Hockey Canada’s radar before a standout start to the season that has him leading the Ontario Hockey League with a 2.06 goals-against average and a .939 save percentage for the Guelph Storm.

“It’s been crazy,” the 19-year-old said of his last four months. ”I still haven’t really taken it all in yet. It’s one of those things … I don’t know if I’ll be able to appreciate it as much as I should until I look back.”

Daws tried to pour cold water on talk of his lack experience on this or any similar stage, but the fact remains along with Joel Hofer, the equally untested presumptive No. 2, Canada’s crease remains a massive question mark.

“It’s a big setting. Very intimidating, I guess you could say,” Daws said. ”But I’m just there to stop pucks.”

Hayton, Veleno, Smith, star winger Alexis Lafreniere and blue-liner Jared McIsaac were all part of the Canadian team that went home bitterly disappointed from last year’s tournament after falling to Finland in the quarterfinals — a feeling they want no part of here in the Czech Republic.

“I don’t think there are any words needed,” said Hayton, whose team faces Russia in another headline-grabber Friday. ”We all have that fire inside of us.”

The Americans, meanwhile, are equally motivated after losing the 2019 gold medal to the Finns with less than 90 seconds to play in regulation.

“Last year was a heartbreaker,” said Samuelsson, one of five returnees. “That feeling that you had, you don’t want it again.”

Both the U.S. and Canada are sick of practising and playing exhibition games.

It’s time for one to pen the rivalry’s latest chapter.

“This is what you drive for,” Hunter said. ”They’re a good team, we’re a good team. That’s what’s going to make it a heck of a hockey game.

“You want that adrenaline. You want to be in the action. That’s what it’s all about.”

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