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THN at the World Junior Championship: Canadian gold medal hopes hang on goaltending, character

Phoenix Coyotes prospect Mark Visentin has allowed two goals in two games this tournament. (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)

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Phoenix Coyotes prospect Mark Visentin has allowed two goals in two games this tournament. (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)

BUFFALO – As we approach the most anticipated game of the World Junior Championship, it’s interesting to note the confluence of factors that makes this Canadian team so unique.

To be sure, there have been Canadian teams that have had suspect goaltending that have skated away from this tournament with a gold medal. And conversely, there have been far less talented rosters that have adorned their red and white with a touch of gold.

And in order to do that this time around, this Canadian team will have to be the rarest of creatures, one that overcomes both mediocre goaltending and less than an overabundance of natural talent. And they’ll have to do it in the semifinal against the team that came into the tournament as the lead horse and breezed through an easier group.

Coming off a 4-1 win over Switzerland in the quarterfinal should give the Canadian team a rush of adrenaline and the reality is the difference between Canada winning its group and having to play in the quarterfinal was razor-thin. But nagging questions remain, the No. 1 of which being whether or not either Sunday starter Mark Visentin or Olivier Roy can provide the kind of goaltending Canada needs to win a gold medal.

Canadian coach Dave Cameron could not have been more adamant in his endorsement of Visentin, saying he had already made up his mind that Visentin will get the start against the USA. But Visentin might not want to get too comfortable because it’s clear he doesn’t have the full confidence of his coach.

When asked what Canada could do about its penchant for allowing early goals, as it did in Sunday’s game when the Swiss opened the scoring 1:09 into the game, Cameron placed much of the blame directly on his goaltenders. And he should have. Roy was very shaky in the shootout loss to Sweden Friday and Visentin allowed a weak dribbler get by him by not hugging the post on Switzerland’s goal Sunday.

“The easiest way is for the goalie to stop the shot,” Cameron said when asked how Canada could escape its early-game lulls. “This isn’t beer league hockey. These are the best players in the world at this age, so your goalie is going to face some shots. If you look at that goal today, if you shot that a thousand times, how many times would Mark stop it? Nine hundred ninety-nine.”

Canada has played the underdog card to perfection so far this tournament, but now it is faced with a formidable, possibly scary, opponent. The great equalizer for Canada has almost always been great goaltending and an abundance of physical play and character. The first has not been displayed yet, but the second and third factors will definitely be in play.

“We know how we have to play and we have to play to our strengths,” Cameron said. “The cycle game is the big part of it and we have size, but size is a factor only if you use it. There are teams in this tournament that are quicker than us, so we probably don’t want to run and gun. And the best way to do that is to get pucks in the right areas and be physical.”

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FOLIGNO ON THE MOVE?

One of the rumors making the rounds is that Canadian winger Marcus Foligno will be joining Team Canada mates Ryan Ellis and Zach Kassian with the Windsor Spitfires shortly after the tournament. The Ontario League trade deadline is Jan. 10.

Foligno has heard the rumors to be sure, most of all from Ellis and Kassian who are egging him on to come to Windsor.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen, but for me it’s a tough situation to leave home,” said Foligno, a native of Sudbury whose father, Mike, was formerly GM and coach of the Wolves and whose mother, Janis, died of cancer two summers ago. “At the same time, you don’t want to be selfish. You want to think about the team and that organization has done a lot for me. (Windsor) is one of the rumors, but there are a couple of teams out there.”

The Wolves have an 11-24-2 record and are tied for second-last place in the Eastern Conference. All but two teams in each conference qualify for the playoffs, so all is not lost, but the Wolves are winless in their past six games.

Wolves GM Blaine Smith is said to be receiving a lot of offers for Foligno, whose trade value has been enhanced by his strong play in both the final evaluation camp and in the tournament.

CONZ MAN

Swiss goalie Benjamin Conz had gone unselected through the past two NHL drafts, which puzzles those who have watched him play in the World Junior Championship. After following up a strong tournament last year, Conz was outstanding against Canada Sunday, stopping 46 of 49 shots. That came after he stopped 40 of 42 shots against the USA in a 2-1 loss Friday night.

“I am trying my best for sure and I am a little bit disappointed, but I know that I am maybe not tall enough to be drafted, so it is difficult, but I cannot change that,” Conz said through an interpreter after the Canada game. “(Playing in the NHL) is still a dream, but if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. I’m working on that and I’m still hoping.”

Conz stands 5-foot-10 and 207 pounds, but he looked much bigger than that to the Canadian shooters.

“He’s got a big chest protector, that guy,” Foligno said, “and his blocker looks a little bigger than usual. I don’t know if it’s the right size, but he knows how to use it.”

 

Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear every Monday throughout the season.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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