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Canada aiming for a golden finish at world juniors


The goal is gold.

That’s Team Canada’s goal every year at the IIHF world under-20 championship, of course, but it doesn’t always work out.

Sometimes they’re sent home from the world juniors with their tails between their legslike last year, after a sixth-place finish in Finland — muttering about how much better the rest of the world is getting.

But on home ice — starting on Boxing Day against Russia at the Air Canada Centre, and finishing with the medal round in Montrealexpectations couldn’t be higher.

“The ultimate goal is obviously a gold,” says Scott Salmond, vice-president of hockey operations for Hockey Canada, “but we’re focused on what it takes to get to gold. Say the goal is to climb Mount Everest, but if you only focus on the goal you’re going to miss a few steps along the way.”

The Americans boast a solid lineup of older, drafted players with as much scoring ability as Canada, while Russian speed and skill will be on display. But most believe Canada is the favourite, even if the team lacks star power.

“Canada can do it,” said Maple Leafs assistant GM Mark Hunter. “I think they look better this year. I like their team. They’re going to be fine.”

Every member of Team Canada has already been drafted by an NHL club, including top scorers such as Taylor Raddysh of the Erie Otters and five players returning from last year.

“I like the fact we’re an older team,” said Hockey Canada chief scout Ryan Jankowski. “We’ve got a lot of 19-year-olds and returning players who went through it last year. We have speed and skill throughout. In the end, it comes down to being a skilled team, fast, and having the talent to play.”

One of those five returnees, Dylan Strome of the Otters, was named captain. Two others, defenceman Thomas Chabot (Saint John Sea Dogs) and forward Mathew Barzal (Seattle Thunderbirds), are the alternates. Mitchell Stephens (Saginaw Spirit) and Julien Gauthier (Val d’Or Foreurs) are also back.

“They’re hungry, especially not winning last year and being in the situation they were in Finland,” said Jankowski. “For them to come back and teach the rest of the group what the tournament is like, and what it’s like to lose and the feeling that sits with you . . . They’re hungry to win.”

Strome, drafted third overall by the Arizona Coyotes in 2015, stood out after the way he’s handled himself the last couple of years, especially after the early elimination in Helsinki.

“He’s one of the guys that wore it the most, and felt like he wanted a shot at redemption,” said Salmond. “He brought that to camp and his NHL experience. His pedigree, his family, he’s just a guy that carries himself like a leader.”

Canada rebounded at home in 2014 after disappointment the year before in Sweden. Hockey Canada hopes history repeats itself. Learning from the past is what it’s all about, says coach Dominique Ducharme, an assistant last year.

“The first thing is how quick you need to adjust and how quick you need to raise your game,” says Ducharme. “That’s what we’re really preparing our players to do, to bring the level of play right where it needs to be, and quickly.

“It’s about the little things, little things make a big difference in that tournament. The margin between winning and losing is really tight. We have to be ready. We have to be sharp.”

It will all go for naught unless Canada has truly addressed its age-old weakness: netminding. This year, the No. 1 is Carter Hart of the Everett Silvertips — CHL goalie of the year last season — with Connor Ingram (Kamloops Blazers) the backup.

“It starts with us playing a strong game in front of them,” says Ducharme, “then them being solid. They showed in their league and with their teams that they can play in big moments and win big games.”

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