Fantilli standing out prior to Canada's opener against Czechia
TSN SportsCentre Reporter Mark Masters reports on the 2023 IIHF World Junior Championship, running Dec. 26-Jan. 5 in Halifax, N.S, and Moncton, N.B. Team Canada skated at the Scotiabank Centre in Halifax on Sunday.
Team Canada will often wrap up practices with a fun competition. On Sunday, it was a shootout and Adam Fantilli came out on top. The University Michigan freshman was the only player to beat both goaltenders Ben Gaudreau and Thomas Milic.
"Pretty much the same move," Fantilli said. "I waited for the goalie to make a move and did a similar thing."
Fantilli skated slowly down the left side before stick handling into the slot and picking his spot.
"It's a good move and he does it really well," Gaudreau said. "He went blocker side on Milic and I thought he'd go blocker side again and then he threw it glove. He's deceptive about it."
At the end of Saturday's practice, coach Dennis Williams challenged players to hit an open net on the fly with their backhand from the offensive blue line.
"It looks a lot easier than what 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 on 18 to win it with your buddies."
"It went like eight guys or something," Fantilli said. "I stepped up to give it a try. I was kind of nervous going in there. It kind of squeaked in there and just made it."
So, Fantilli enters the World Juniors on a winning streak of sorts. He appears due for a big performance on Boxing Day when Canada opens the tournament against Czechia.
Canada's second line – Fantilli beside Kamloops Blazers centre Logan Stankoven and Arizona Coyotes winger Dylan Guenther – did not produce a goal in 5-on-5 play during the three pre-tournament games. However, Fantilli likes how the trio is progressing.
"We're all feeling a lot more connected to each other, a lot more loose," he said. "I feel like we're getting a lot of chemistry going so I'm really excited for what we're going to be able to do against Czechia."
Fantilli posted just one assist, a secondary helper at the end of a power play, in the three tune-up tests. He has 26 points in 16 NCAA games this season.
"His effort's been unreal," said Williams. "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 have him on the flank there so we'll see maybe a jolt for that unit."
Fantilli has bounced between the flanks and the bumper spot on the second unit in the last week. Now, he's back in his most familiar one-timer position.
"This is the side that I usually play on for my club team," the lefty notes.
Fantilli admits it may be tough to get to sleep as he prepares for his World Junior debut.
"I'll have some pre-game giddiness going," 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 amazing," Fantilli said. "My family came in for the Finland game [Friday] and they say they've never seen anything like it. It gives me so much energy."
When he was growing up in North Bay, Ont., Gaudreau and his family would get together with goalie coach Todd Robillard to watch Team Canada on Boxing Day. This year, he'll be playing in the tournament opener.
"It's something from a young age I've dreamed about and wanted to do," the Sarnia Sting goaltender said. "It's going to be awesome. When they told me I got the start, it was really exciting. I got to treat it like any other game, though, and stay calm, stay relaxed."
How tough will that be?
"It's tough 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 pretty hard. You have to take a couple deep breaths and just settle down and focus."
That will also be a challenge for his parents, Rob and Charlotte, who will be in the stands.
"My mom's a little bit of the crazier one," Gaudreau said with a laugh. "My dad's pretty chill. He was always the dad sitting up in the corner just tracking shots and everything. Hopefully, my mom doesn't have a heart attack tomorrow. My dad's calmness will hopefully rub off on her. Hopefully, they're sitting beside each other and my aunt and uncle don't squeeze in between."
Gaudreau struggled early this season in the Ontario Hockey League, but feels like he's dialled in his game since arriving at Canada's selection camp. He allowed just one goal in his pre-tournament start and it was a flukey one off the stick of Shane Wright.
"I feel really good," he said. "It's been a good camp. Practices are awesome. 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 Canada's starter. The Seattle Thunderbirds goalie played in two of the three pre-tournament games.
"There hasn't been a clear No. 1 goalie," Williams said. "We've said that all along. They have a good, healthy competition. They support each other. They've been teammates before. We feel really confident in both guys."
Gaudreau and Milic formed Canada's tandem at the under-18 World Championship in 2021. Gaudreau started five of the seven games and was named the tournament's top goalie.
Connor Bedard will be going up against Regina Pats teammate Stanislav Svozil on Monday.
"I'm pretty 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 chirping back and forth when we were in Regina and even today. We love competing and practising against each other. Whenever it's a 1-on-1 drill, I'll be going against him."
Svozil has had a front-row seat to Bedard's magical season in the Western Hockey League. The 17-year-old centre has racked up 64 points in 28 games, but the Czechia defenceman is appreciating his captain's two-way game the most.
"He's way better than last year," Svozil said. "His defensive game is way better than last year. His positioning and his skating in the defensive zone, and he's using his body too."
What is Bedard seeing in Svozil?
"He's been unreal this year," the North Vancouver native said. "He controls the game for us. He's jumping up. He's making plays. He's like a fourth forward with his offensive skill-set and he's been responsible for us defensively."
Cleveland Monsters defenceman David Jiricek did not arrive in Halifax in time for Sunday's practice.
"We were hoping he would come sooner," said Czechia goalie coach Ondrej Pavelec. "The situation with the weather 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 battle through those things. I think he's going to be fine."
Jiricek has been playing in the American Hockey League in the lead up to the World Juniors. He was at the summer event in Edmonton so he already has a built-in chemistry with most of the players in Halifax.
"He knows everybody," Pavelec stressed. "That's not going to be a problem. He's excited to come here and play against Canada and in this atmosphere."
"He's so great and it doesn't matter," said Rochester Americans forward Jiri Kulich. "He comes here late so maybe it will be tough, but he's a great player."
Jiricek, the sixth overall pick by the Columbus Blue Jackets in July's draft, has 20 points in 19 games with the Monsters. He's also played in two NHL games.
How high can Kometa Brno winger Eduard Sale go in the 2023 NHL draft?
"I believe he can be in the first 10 players," said Svozil, "but it's hard to say right now because it's before this tournament and I know this tournament is so important to him. I can tell that after this tournament."
A big performance in Halifax will help solidify Sale near the top of the draft class, but it's tough to make an impact as a younger player.
"Maybe it is a little bit harder for me," he said. "But I have a [significant] role in the team and I know what I can do for the tournament and team. I think it will be OK for me."
Sale has been skating alongside Kulich on the top line.
"He's young, but he's so smart," said Kulich. "He knows how to play. I try and help him, but he knows everything."
"He's so smart," raved defenceman Tomas Hamara. "He can always find your stick. He has very good passing skills."
"He's 17 but it seems he's 19 like us," said Tri-City Americans goalie Tomas Suchanek.
Sale feels like his game is a perfect fit with Kulich, who has 16 points in 24 games with Rochester. The pair have been skating together on the top line.
"I'm the playmaker," Sale said. "Kulich, he's unbelievable shooter and I am a playmaker. I like the passing game and him shooting always."
Sale lists Calgary Flames winger Jonathan Huberdeau as his NHL role model.
Hamara remembers being mesmerized by the MVP performance of Canada's Thomas Chabot at the 2017 World Juniors in Montreal and Toronto.
"He was just outstanding. He was very dominant there and playing so well. I didn't know who he was at the time. I just saw that No. 5 is standing out."
The Senators picked Hamara with the 87th overall pick in the third round of July's draft and the teenager got to chat a bit with Chabot at Ottawa's training camp.
"I try to watch every game they play and watch the way he's playing and learn as many things as possible," the 18-year-old said.
What stands out?
"His skating," said Hamara. "He always uses his skating and tries to escape from the forecheckers. That's the main thing."
Hamara has 11 points in 24 games with the Kitchener Rangers. It's his first season in the Ontario Hockey League.
"The transition to the North American game has been pretty difficult," he admits. "But now that I've been here for a while I've gotten more used to it and it's getting better."
The biggest adjustment?
"For sure, the small rink," he said. "It's different and very fast. I don't have that much time to think about what I'm going to do with the puck. So, that's been the biggest one."
Lines at Team Canada's practice on Sunday:
Othmann - Wright - Bedard
Fantilli - Stankoven - Guenther
Dean - Gaucher - Roy
Dach - Bankier - Ostapchuk
Del Mastro - Zellweger
Hinds - Clarke
Korchinski - Alan
Power play units at Team Canada's practice on Sunday:
Flanks: Guenther, Bedard
Net front: Othmann
Flanks: Stankoven, Fantilli
Net front: Gaucher