Canada warms up before taking on Russia during IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship pre-competition action in Edmonton, Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020. A Canadian team lacking game legs opens defence of its world junior men's hockey title Saturday in Edmonton. The host team kicks off its preliminary round against Germany at Rogers Place. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

Shedding game rust key for Canadian team in defending world junior men’s hockey gold

A Canadian team lacking game legs opens defence of its world junior men’s hockey title Saturday in Edmonton.

The host team kicks off its preliminary round against Germany at Rogers Place.

Canada has played one game against an opponent — Wednesday’s 1-0 pre-tournament win over Russia — since selection camp started Nov. 16.

Canadian captain Kirby Dach injured his right wrist in the third period of that game and won’t be able to play in the tournament.

Canada coach Andre Tourigny said Friday he will not name another captain for the tournament.

“It’s really heartbreaking what happened, but we prepared since Day 1 to go through adversity,” he said.

Germany will be minus nine players Saturday. Those players are in quarantine because of positive COVID-19 tests on the team.

Three Germans can return to the tournament Sunday and another five Tuesday barring more positive tests.

The 46 players invited to Canada’s selection camp went into quarantine mid-camp after two players tested positive for the virus, so four exhibition games against university teams were cancelled.

An extended quarantine for Sweden upon arrival in Canada wiped out a pre-tournament game between the two countries.

Of the 25 players on Canada’s roster, 20 haven’t played any games in months because the pandemic postponed the start of their leagues this season.

“It’s definitely challenging and something we’ve talked about, not being able to play that many games aside from the (Quebec Major Junior Hockey League) guys,” said forward Alex Newhook of St. John’s N.L., who hasn’t seen game action with Boston College this season.

“In saying that, we’ve really built up our intensity and pace of play in practice. Regardless of how many games we’ve played, I think our practices will set us up well for the highest level of competition we’ve played in a long time.”

“Resilience” has been a word frequently uttered by Tourigny and his coaching staff in a challenging lead-up to the tournament.

“In team-building exercises, the players had to talk about that value of resilience,” Tourigny said.

“That’s one of the reasons our country is so special in hockey. We’re resilient. We never quit. We stay with it. We never stop. You need that to perform in a championship.”

The Canadians won’t have a sellout crowd at Rogers Place providing adrenalin. All games are without fans to avoid the spread of the virus.

“It’s definitely unfortunate (to) not have fans and having that home crowd,” Newhook said.

“Everyone wants to have that energy. The world juniors are such a large stage and we know the country’s behind us, regardless of having fans or not.

“I think we’re going to have to supply our own energy and we have a lot of guys in that room that can do that really well.”

Canada is arguably in the easier pool alongside Finland, Switzerland, Slovakia and Germany. Russia, the United States, Sweden, the Czech Republic and Austria comprise Pool B.

The Canadians start with back-to-back games Saturday and Sunday against the Germans and Slovakia, respectively.

Canada versus Switzerland on Tuesday and a New Year’s Eve matchup with the Finns complete the preliminary round for the host country.

“I can talk to you about our guys for hours about how they work in practice, when we teach them or ask them different things, and how they are off the ice,” Tourigny said.

“But in terms of knowing how they will react in game, when they heat will be on, when mistakes will happen, where there are breakdowns or stuff like that, I cannot tell you right now we know them a lot.”

The top four teams in each group advance to the Jan. 2 quarterfinals, followed by semifinals Jan. 4 and the medal games Jan. 5

Canada boasts considerable talent up front with all 14 forwards drafted in the first round by NHL teams.

Six players are veterans of the 2020 championship in Ostrava, Czech Republic, where Canada scored three goals in the third period to down Russia 4-3 for gold.

Tournament MVP Alexis Lafrenière wasn’t released by the New York Rangers to play for Canada again.

A lack of warmup games made choosing a starting goaltender difficult, particularly because Devon Levi, Taylor Gauthier and Dylan Garand haven’t previously played in the tournament.

Levi, of Dollard-des-Ormeaux, Que., posted a 23-save shutout against Russia. Tourigny indicated prior to the exhibition game the job is Levi’s to lose. He’ll start again Saturday against Germany.

“We knew going into camp our goalies would not have a lot of games to prove themselves,” the head coach said.

“According to what we saw in practice and during the intrasquad games, that led to our decision to go with Devon.”

As the home team, Canada gets the palatial dressing room of the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers.

Forward Dylan Holloway, Edmonton’s first pick (10th overall) in October’s draft, is enjoying a preview of what his NHL future could be.

“It’s massive,” gushed the winger from Bragg Creek, Alta. “There’s a ton of square feet. It’s definitely the biggest dressing room I’ve ever been in.

“They’ve got a ping-pong table. The lounge kind of looks like a hotel lobby. The hot tub and cold tub are really nice.

“There’s so many amenities and so many cool things. It’s crazy to be in there and it’s super-cool.”

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