Team Canada is counting on its young stars to continue their winning ways at the IIHF world hockey championship in Germany.
“Someone told me today we’ve got six players 20 or under,” Canadian head coach Craig MacTavish said in a phone interview from Hamburg. “We’ve got a lot of youth on the team, a lot of enthusiasm.
“They’ve done nothing but win, these guys. They’ve won a lot of world juniors, they’ve got a lot of experience for young players and I think they’re going to be fine at handling this tournament.”
Team Canada opens preliminary-round play against Italy in Mannheim on Saturday, and is in the same pool as Switzerland, Latvia and the Italians.
For the past two world showdowns, Canada has played second fiddle to the gold medal-winning Russians.
The Montreal Canadiens’ shocking first-round Stanley Cup upset of the Washington Capitals meant the talented likes of Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin were free to join New Jersey Devils sniper Ilya Kovalchuk and make Russia look like the team to beat yet again.
“Yeah . . . I don’t know. I don’t get too wrapped up with who the favourite is,” said MacTavish. “They look like they’ve got a good team and they’ve got a bunch of stars. But we’ve got to play on the ice and that’s the part we’re worrying about.”
That’s when Canada’s youth comes in, led by 20-year-old Tampa Bay Lightning star Steven Stamkos, who shared the Rocket Richard Trophy with Sidney Crosby as the NHL’s top goal-scorer this season.
“Fifty-one goals in the NHL is a pretty good indication (of his scoring ability),” MacTavish said. “He’s our highest scorer so we’ll be counting on him heavily for offence.”
Stamkos and linemates Corey Perry and Rene Bourque, of the Anaheim Ducks and Calgary Flames, respectively, got off to a good start Tuesday night in Team Canada’s lone exhibition tilt, scoring all four goals in a 4-1 victory over their German hosts.
“Tonight wasn’t a very good indication,” MacTavish admitted following Tuesday’s win. “But I think all of the lines are capable of scoring. I think we’ve got what’s going to be a pretty balanced attack with what’s the making of a pretty good No. 1 line.”
NHL rookie forwards suiting up for Team Canada include Colorado Avalanche’s Matt Duchene, 19, Atlanta Thrashers’ Evander Kane, 18, and New York Islanders’ John Tavares, 19.
The defensive corps includes Buffalo Sabres’ six-foot-eight NHL rookie Tyler Myers, 20, and New York Rangers’ first-year man Michael Del Zotto, 19.
Veteran forwards Ray Whitney of the Carolina Hurricanes and Ryan Smyth of Los Angeles Kings will be counted on to keep the young guns grounded. Perry, meanwhile, is the only Canadian player that suited up for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver back in February.
“Ryan Smyth provides leadership for our young group,” MacTavish said of the veteran, who earned the nickname Captain Canada for his past performances at the worlds and the Olympic Games. “He’s a very good example of a committed Canadian.”
Team Canada general manager Mark Messier’s plans included adding a third goaltender following second-round play in the Stanley Cup playoffs, but after Tuesday night’s game, MacTavish was ready to name St. Louis Blues’ Chris Mason his starter.
“Based on what he did (Tuesday night), he’s the No. 1 guy,” MacTavish said. “He was outstanding.”
Rangers’ Chad Johnson could also see action in the Canadian net.
The 16-team tournament begins on Friday with the United States facing Germany at Schalke’s soccer stadium in Gelsenkirchen. The game is expected to draw more than 75,000 fans, which would set a world record.
The gold-medal game is slated for May 23 in Cologne.
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