TSN SportsCentre reporter Mark Masters reports on the 2023 IIHF World Junior Championship, which will take place from December 26 to January 1. 5 in Halifax, NS, and Moncton, NB Team Canada skated at the Scotiabank Center in Halifax on Sunday.
Team Canada will often conclude practices with some fun competition. On Sunday, it was a shootout and Adam Fantilli emerged victorious. The University of Michigan freshman was the only player to beat goaltenders Ben Gaudreau and Thomas Milic.
“Pretty much the same movement,” Fantilli said. “I waited for the goalkeeper to make a move and I did something similar.”
Fantilli skated slowly down the left side before driving the club into the slot and choosing his spot.
“It’s a good move and he does it very well,” Gaudreau said. “He sided with the blocker on Milic and I thought he was going to side with the blocker again and then he threw it away. He’s misleading about it.”
At the end of practice on Saturday, coach Dennis Williams challenged the players to hit an open net on the fly with their backhand from the offensive blue line.
“It looks a lot easier than it really is,” Williams said with a laugh, “especially when you put a lot of pressure on it. It’s like that foot-and-a-half putt at 18 to win it with your friends.”
“It was like eight guys or something,” Fantilli said. “I went up close to try it. I was a little nervous going in there. It kind of creaked in there and I just made it.”
So Fantilli enters the World Juniors on something of a winning streak. He looks like he’s going to have a great performance on Boxing Day when Canada opens the tournament against the Czech Republic.
Canada’s second line Fantilli alongside Kamloops Blazers center Logan Stankoven and Arizona Coyotes winger Dylan Guenther did not produce a goal in 5-on-5 play during the three games leading up to the tournament. However, Fantilli likes how the trio is progressing.
“We all feel much more connected to each other, much more loose,” he said. “I feel like we’re having a lot of chemistry so I’m really excited about what we’re going to be able to do against the Czech Republic.”
Fantilli recorded just one assist, a secondary helper late on a power play, in all three set-up tests. He has 26 points in 16 NCAA games this season.
“His effort has been unrealistic,” Williams said. “He’s been a great teammate. He’s been competing hard. He’s been tracking pucks, finishing his checks and getting to the right areas. Now with that power play unit we’ve got him on the flank there so we’ll see maybe a jolt for that unit.”
Fantilli has bounced between the flanks and the bumper on the second drive in the last week. Now, he’s back in his more familiar single player position.
“This is the team I usually play for in my club team,” says the left-hander.
Fantilli admits it can be hard to fall asleep as he prepares for his junior world debut.
“I’ll have some pre-game vertigo,” the 18-year-old said with a big smile.
Fantilli represented Canada at the Under-18 World Championship in April, but that was in Germany. Monday’s game will be played in front of a full house in Halifax.
“The atmosphere has been incredible,” Fantilli said. “My family came to the Finland match [Friday] and they say they have never seen anything like it. It gives me a lot of energy.”
As a boy in North Bay, Ontario, Gaudreau and his family would join goalkeeping coach Todd Robillard to watch Team Canada on Boxing Day. This year, he will play in the tournament opener.
“It’s something I dreamed of and wanted to do from a very young age,” said the Sarnia goalkeeper Sting. “It’s going to be amazing. When they told me I was starting, it was really exciting. However, I have to treat it like any other game and stay calm, stay relaxed.”
How hard will that be?
“It’s hard for sure,” Gaudreau said. “At the end of the day, it’s a dream game come true. It’s a dream situation. You have to work really hard. You have to take a couple of deep breaths and calm down and focus.”
That will also be a challenge for their parents, Rob and Charlotte, who will be in the stands.
“My mom is a little crazier,” Gaudreau said with a smile. “My dad is pretty easy going. He was always the dad sitting in the corner just following shots and everything. Hopefully my mom won’t have a heart attack tomorrow. Hopefully my dad’s calm rubs off on her. Hopefully, sitting next to each other and my aunt and uncle don’t squeeze in the middle.”
Gaudreau struggled earlier this season in the Ontario Hockey League, but feels like he’s marked his game since making the Canada selection field. He allowed just one goal in his pre-tournament start and it was a fluke off Shane Wright’s stick.
“I feel great,” he said. “It’s been a good camp. Practices are amazing. They’re intense. They get you going. It’s been good to have that high intensity and it’s helped me a lot.”
Gaudreau is competing with Milic to be the starter for Canada. The Seattle Thunderbirds goaltender played in two of the three games leading up to the tournament.
“There hasn’t been a clear number one goalkeeper,” Williams said. “We’ve said it all the time. They have good, healthy competition. They support each other. They’ve been teammates before. We feel very confident in both guys.”
Gaudreau and Milic formed Canada’s duo at the 2021 Under-18 World Championship. Gaudreau started five of the seven matches and was named the tournament’s best goalkeeper.
Connor Bedard will take on his Regina Pats teammate Stanislav Svozil on Monday.
“I’m very excited,” Bedard said. “I was talking to him here today for a bit. We’re really good friends and we’ve been talking about it for a while. There’s definitely been a lot of screeching back and forth when we were in Regina and even today. I love competing and practicing against each other Anytime it’s a 1v1 drill, I’ll go against him.”
Svozil has had a front row seat to Bedard’s magical season in the Western Hockey League. The 17-year-old center has amassed 64 points in 28 games, but the Czech defenseman appreciates his captain’s two-way play the most.
“It’s much better than last year,” Svozil said. “His defensive game is much better than last year. His positioning and his skating in the defensive zone, and he’s also using his body.”
What does Bedard see in Svozil?
“It’s been unreal this year,” the North Vancouver native said. “He controls the game for us. He’s jumping. He’s making plays. He’s like a fourth quarter with his offensive skill set and he’s been responsible for us defensively.”
Cleveland Monsters defenseman David Jiricek did not make it to Halifax in time for practice Sunday.
“We expected him to arrive earlier,” Czech goalkeeping coach Ondrej Pavelec said. “The weather situation wasn’t good and he’s stuck at the airport, but that’s the way it is. If you want to win something, you have to fight those things. I think he’s going to be fine.”
Jiricek has been playing in the American Hockey League prior to World Juniors. He was at the summer event in Edmonton, so he already has built-in chemistry with most of the players in Halifax.
“He knows everyone,” Pavelec stressed. “That’s not going to be a problem. He’s excited to come here and play against Canada and in this atmosphere.”
“It’s so great and it doesn’t matter,” Rochester Americans forward Jiri Kulich said. “He gets here late so maybe it’s tough, but he’s a great player.”
Jiricek, the Columbus Blue Jackets’ sixth overall pick in the July draft, has 20 points in 19 games with the Monsters. He has also played in two NHL games.
How high can Kometa Brno winger Eduard Sale go in the 2023 NHL draft?
“I think he can be in the top 10 players,” Svozil said, “but it’s hard to say now because it’s before this tournament and I know this tournament is very important for him. I can say after this tournament.”
A strong performance in Halifax will help solidify Sale near the top of the draft class, but it’s hard to make an impact as a younger player.
“Maybe it’s a little bit more difficult for me,” he said. “But I have a [significant] role in the team and I know what I can do for the tournament and the team. I think it will be fine for me.”
Sale has been skating alongside Kulich on the top line.
“He’s young, but he’s very smart,” Kulich said. “He knows how to play. I try to help him, but he knows everything.”
“He’s so smart,” enthused defender Tomas Hamara. “He can always find your stick. He has very good passing skills.”
“He’s 17, but he looks like he’s 19 like us,” Tri-City Americans goaltender Tomas Suchanek said.
Sale feels like his game is a perfect fit for Kulich, who has 16 points in 24 games with Rochester. The pair have been skating together on the top line.
“I’m the midfielder,” Sale said. “Kulich, he’s an amazing shooter and I’m a playmaker. I like the passing game and he shoots all the time.”
Sale lists Calgary Flames winger Jonathan Huberdeau as his NHL role model.
Hamara remembers being mesmerized by Canadian Thomas Chabot’s MVP performance at the 2017 World Junior Championships in Montreal and Toronto.
“He was just outstanding. He was very dominant there and played very well. I didn’t know who he was at the time. I just saw the No. 5 stand out.”
The Senators selected Hamara with the 87th pick in the third round of the draft in July, and the teenager got to chat with Chabot a bit at training camp in Ottawa.
“I try to watch every game they play and see the way he plays and learn as many things as possible,” the 18-year-old said.
That stands out?
“Her skating,” Hamara said. “He always uses his skate and tries to get away from fast breaks. That’s the main thing.”
Hamara has 11 points in 24 games with the Kitchener Rangers. It is his first season in the Ontario Hockey League.
“The transition to the North American game has been quite difficult,” he admits. “But now that I’ve been here a while I’ve gotten used to it and it’s getting better.”
The biggest adjustment?
“Of course, the small track,” he said. “It’s different and very fast. I don’t have a lot of time to think about what I’m going to do with the record. So, that’s been the biggest one.”
Lines at Team Canada practice on Sunday:
Dean – Gaucher – Roy
Dach – Banker – Ostapchuk
Power play drives at Team Canada practice on Sunday:
Flanks: Günther, Bedard
Net front: Othmann
Flanks: Stankoven, Fantilli
Net front: Gaucher
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