OSTRAVA, Czech Republic — The Canadian world junior team is getting back their best offensive weapon just in time for the playoff round.
Alexis Lafreniere, the 18-year-old Quebec star, is expected to return to the lineup in Thursday’s quarterfinal against Slovakia five days after suffering a knee injury that threatened to cut short his tournament.
The NHL’s first overall pick front-runner raised hope Wednesday when he skated in the team’s New Year’s Day practice at Ostravar Arena and showed no ill effects from the knee injury that forced him to miss the past two-and-a-half games.
“I thought he looked pretty good,” Canada assistant coach Mitch Love said. “Obviously, (it’s) another step in the right direction for his return. He just looked happy and excited to be back on the ice with his teammates. I know it’s tough for young kids to be away from their team, especially at an event like this.”
Lafreniere didn’t speak to the media about his progress, instead heading to the medical staff for further checks. But after watching him tumble and be helped off the ice Saturday against Russia, some of his teammates were stunned that he has returned this rapidly.
“It’s pretty shocking,” fellow Canadian forward Ty Dellandrea said, “just the way everybody thought how bad it was and to make a turnaround this quick and be skating like he was (here).
“We’re all excited.”
Only captain Barrett Hayton and Dylan Cozens, with six points in four games, have passed Lafreniere’s four points from the Boxing Day victory over United States. The squad’s offence and power-play, strong in his absence the past two wins, would add that one extra dimension needed to keep the opposition off balance.
“He’s a game-changer,” Cozens, the Sabres first-rounder said, “and a guy who every time he’s on the ice, he’s a threat to score.”
Lafreniere led the group stretch in the middle of practice. It’s clear he lightens the mood and eases some pressure on this highly-scrutinized band of teenagers.
“He’s close with everyone on the team and kind of brings our group together,” Dellandrea said. “He’s a fun-loving guy who loves to be around the rink. When he’s not at the rink, he’s thinking about hockey or watching other games.
“He brings a joy to our room and an upbeat mood.”
Lafreniere’s presence is vital for the medal round. But recent history suggests Canada should be able to roll over the underdog Slovaks.
The Robert Petrovicky-coached squad has been the least efficient offence of the 10 in the tournament. They’re prone to taking penalties and their goaltending needs to be a lot better.
Since their bronze medal at Toronto in 2015, they have been bounced four straight years in the quarterfinal round and have only scored one goal — total — in their past four meetings with Canada.
“We have to be disciplined if we want to do something with the game,” Slovakian forward Oliver Okuliar, who plays for the Western league’s Lethbridge Hurricanes, said. “Canada is the best 5-on-5 and 5-on-4. If they have (too good) chances, then 90% of time it will go in our net.”
It’s tempting to look ahead to a possible rematch with Russia in the semifinal. But the Canadians have not forgot about what happened in their heartbreaking quarterfinal loss to Finland last year in Vancouver.
“A lot of us have a bitter taste in our mouth,” said Hayton, one of five returning players from that squad. “We have a lot of fire inside us. From Day 1, our motto was get better every day. You’ve got to look in the mirror and fine-tune some things. That’s big for us.
“We’ve built on each day and the best is yet to come.”
One of their biggest advantages from finishing first was they got to stay in Ostrava. The United States and Russia had to pack up and head to Trinec, about 40 minutes away, for their first playoff game.
“That was a big goal of ours, to stay here and not have to change cities and then come back,” Canadian forward Liam Foudy, the London Knights co-captain, said. “We know it’s an elimination game so we have to be ready to go.”
And they will get a boost with Lafreniere on board.
THE ROAD HERE . . .
Canada (3-1, first in Pool B)
Dec. 26: Beat United States 6-4
Dec. 28: Lost to Russia 6-0
Dec. 30: Beat Germany 4-1
Dec: 31: Beat Czech Republic 7-2
Slovakia (1-3, fourth in Pool A)
Dec. 27: Beat Kazakhstan 3-1
Dec. 28: Lost to Finland 8-1
Dec. 30: Lost to Switzerland 7-2
Dec. 31: Lost to Sweden 6-2
|Power play||(1) 9-20 (45%)||(8) 4-19 (21%)|
|Penalty kill||(5) 12-17 (70.6%)||(6) 16-23 (69.6%)|
|Penalties||(10) 38 PIMs||(3) 74 PIMs|
|Leaders||Barrett Hayton (3 goals, 6 points), |
Dylan Cozens (1 goal, 6 points)
|Robert Dzugan (4 goals)|
|Time on ice||D Bowen Byram (19:12)||F Robert Dzugan, D Martin Vitalos (19:09)|
|Goaltending||Joel Hofer (2-0, 1.90 GAA, .917 save %)||Samuel Hlavaj (1-2, 4.50 GAA, .868 save %)|
|Faceoffs (over 30 draws)||Barrett Hayton (29-20, 59.2%)||Kristian Kovacik (44-21, 67.7%)|