Canada shakes off nerves

TERRY JONES, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 2:24 AM ET

CALGARY - Canada started like they ended the world junior hockey championship last year in Buffalo.

Goaltender Mark Visentin was shaky and flubbed on a shot which gave Finland a 1-0 lead.

But then they started to run the reel backwards and the nervousness Canada showed early went away, partly due to the robust play of Devante Smith-Pelly and leadership of the four players who were with the team that gassed that 3-0 lead to Russia in the gold-medal game last year.

"Mark Visentin looked just like the rest of the team," said head coach Don Hay of the Canadians, who came back to win the first game on the pre-tournament schedule 3-1 over Finland.

In the end it was the "perfect" win for Hay.

Team Canada was good enough to go back to Banff, having managed to get rid of the nerves and take some confidence forward. But the win over Finland, who they face in Edmonton in the tournament opener on Boxing Day, identified a lot of room for improvement and no room at all for overconfidence.

"We were nervous at the start," said Hay, who rolled undefeated from beginning to end to win the 1995 world junior the last time it was in this province.

"But we stuck with it. We got better.

"As the game went on, Visentin got better."

The goalie admitted he was fighting it a bit in the beginning.

"I was a little shaky at the start. I left a couple of live grenades out there. And I probably wanted the one that went in back. But I thought I played pretty solid at the end."

The national netminder said it was strange out there because you could feel and see the nerves everywhere you looked.

"Both teams were nervous. But as the game went on, I think our nerves went away."

With an estimated 12,000 fans in the stands, it was nowhere near the scene the players can expect when both the Saddledome and Rexall Place in Edmonton are sold out for every game.

BIGGEST CROWD

But you forget, these are junior hockey players.

"I think that's part of the reason why it took a couple of periods to get the nerves out of the way," said Boone Jenner of the Oshawa Generals, who scored Canada's first goal of the game.

"That was probably the biggest crowd I've ever played before, ever."

Hay said that's expected when you have a team with so few players who played in the tournament before.

"This was their first time in front of a big crowd. It was a real eye-opener."

There's going to be a lot of that with all the kids from the 10 teams in the tournament but Canada, Finland and Sweden (which plays Canada Friday in Rexall Place) will be able to adjust to the big crowds in the NHL arenas before the tournament begins.

And one thing to remember for this one: the Finns climbed off the plane at the same time Canada was at practice in Banff on Sunday.

The team coached by Raimo Helminen has a very interesting squad to bring to Edmonton for the Boxing Day opener.

"The expectation is that this will be the best Finland team we've seen in this tournament in 10 years," said Jouni Nieminen, the North American correspondent of Helsingin Sanomat, based in Edmonton.

Nieminen said the strength of the team is the top two lines, who are all playing big minutes in the S.M. Liiga.

Mikael Granlund, a Minnesota first draft choice in 2010, is a national hero after scoring a lacrosse-style goal circa Billy Warwick 1955 in Finland's world championship gold medal win over Russia. His brother Marcus, a Calgary Flames draft who plays in the shadow of Michael, had five assists against the Czechs a month ago.

Aleksander Barkov, at 16, is the youngest ever member of the world junior team. The 6-foot-2 forward is the son of a Russian player who came to Finland to play pro at the end of his career and stayed to raise his family.

Three defencemen on the team are undrafted 1994-born players, so there's some question of what they'll look like on the back end.

The Suomi, you have to believe, will live to see another day. And Team Canada has to be concerned it might be on Boxing Day.


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