It's that time of year again as Canada gets set to open the World Junior Hockey Championship against Slovakia on Boxing Day.
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Canada is looking to end a five-year gold medal drought that dates back to 2010, when a loss to the United States in the final snapped a previous run of five straight titles from 2005-2009.
There is unfinished business for many returning players after a fourth-place finish last year. A 2-1 loss to Russia in the bronze medal game sent Canada to its second straight tournament without a medal - only the second time in World Junior history that Canada has been held without a medal in consecutive years (1979-1981)
Canada has seven returning players with forwards Curtis Lazar, Connor McDavid, Sam Reinhart, Nicolas Petan, Frederik Gauthier, defenceman Josh Morrissey and goaltender Zach Fucale.
"I was disappointed with how we played last year and the result we got," Lazar told the Canadian Press on Monday, reminiscing on the loss to Finland in last year's semis and the defeat to Russia in the bronze-medal game. "Second chances don't come around too often. We're fortunate to have this chance."
Lazar, on loan from the Ottawa Senators, was named team captain on Monday with Buffalo Sabres prospect Sam Reinhart and potential No. 1 pick in the 2015 NHL draft Conner McDavid assigned as alternates.
"I want it to be loud. That's the biggest thing," said Lazar. "Regardless if we're out there blocking a shot, hitting a guy or scoring a goal, we want our fans to support us and cheer us on. It's going to be huge, but in saying that we need to be able to manage the crowd and get them behind us right off the start. If we can get that momentum rolling through the tournament it will be really beneficial to us. World Juniors in Canada. They're here to support us and it's up to us to put on a show."
Fucale will start in net for Canada opposite Denis Godla for Slovakia. Fucale was named the starter during Thursday's practice, though head coach Benoit Grouxl would not name the starter for Canada.
In Slovakia is an opponent who has captured just one medal in tournament history - a bronze in 1999.
Montreal Canadiens prospect Martin Reway, Boston Bruins prospect Peter Cehlarik and Robert Lantosi are the only three returning forwards this year but a young group of talent including the likes of Matus Sokel, Patrik Koys and Dominik Briestensky give Slovakia a few legitimate offensive options.
With only one defensive returnee, 17-year-old 2015 draft prospect Erik Cernak, the Slovaks will face an uphill climb against a superior Canadian attack.
"We want to play a fast game. Fast on the forecheck, fast with the puck, fast at getting the puck back," Groulx said on Tuesday. On Thursday, the head coach said he was ready to see his team on the ice in a meaningful game, "It's time to play and we'll be ready."
"We don't want to be part of scrums after the whistle or anything like that," said Groulx. "When you look at our team, we have a lot of skilled players that don't play like that (in the CHL/NHL). I don't expect discipline to be an issue."
Projected Team Canada Lines:
Domi - Reinhart - Duclair
Ritchie - McDavid - Lazar
Paul - Petan - Fabbri
Crouse - Gauthier - Virtanen
Nurse - Theodore
Morrissey - Bowey
Morin - Hicketts
- CAN beat SVK last year, 5-3
- CAN has 8 wins, 1 tie all-time vs SVK
- Tie came in 1999, 7 straight CAN wins since
- lost to SWE in QF in 2014
- only medal was a bronze in 1999
- finished 8th in 4 of past 5 years (6th-2012)
- 2 players on roster play in CHL, including goalie Gibl-Barrie
- came in 4th in 2013 and 2014
- lost to FIN in SF in 2014 and to RUS in bronze medal game
- won a medal each time tournament was in Canada
- only time 3 straight years without a medal was 1979-81