HELSINKI — It won’t take long for Canada’s junior hockey team to find out how it stacks up against the other heavy hitters at the 2016 world championship.
Canada kicks off the defence of its world junior title with a matchup versus the archrival United States on Saturday. The Americans are one of the favourites of the tournament and will measure just how well Canada’s roster has come together in the short time since training camp started at the beginning of the month.
A stiff challenge this early in the tournament is something new for the Canadians. Over the past four seasons, Canada and the U.S. have played on New Year’s Eve or Dec. 30, with the Canadians easing into the tournament with an opener against an opponent not considered a favourite (Slovakia last year, Germany the previous two).
Playing another potential medallist so early in the tournament could be a boon or a curse for Canada, as the result, good or ill, could set the tone for the rest of the preliminary round. Regardless, Canadian head coach Dave Lowry said his team will be ready.
"We always have good games, Canada and the U.S," Lowry said after Canada's exhibition win over Sweden. "They're always easy to get up for. Fortunate or unfortunate, they're our first opponent. That's the way we're looking at it. We just get ready to play."
Canada prepared for its big opening match with three exhibition games, with the last game coming against a highly skilled Sweden team. Canada won 7-6, but gave up a 5-1 lead in the third period and saw some of its flaws exposed.
"There are obviously some areas in our game we're going to have to get better at," Lowry said. "No. 1 is playing with the lead."
It was a tough game for goaltender Mason McDonald, the likely starter against the Americans with projected starter Mackenzie Blackwood suspended for the first two games of the tournament. McDonald was burned for five goals in the third period against Sweden.
Lowry defended his goaltender, instead citing a lack of discipline and defensive breakdowns for the Sweden comeback. Canada was penalized six times in the period and gave up two 5-on-3 chances, something that will have to be addressed before playing the opportunistic Americans.
"We don't have any problem with our goaltending," Lowry said. "The fact is, you take six penalties in the third period, that's going to expose everyone.
"We just have to defend better, that's it."
If the exhibition series highlighted some problem areas in defence and discipline, it also highlighted Canada's potent offence. Canada scored seven goals in two of the games, with expected offensive leaders Jake Virtanen, Dylan Strome and Mitch Marner all contributing.
"When we play a certain way, we put ourselves in a position to create and generate offence," Lowry said. "Our games have been getting harder and harder, and our opponents have been very good.
"Every game gets bigger and bigger, and your opponent plays more of a complete game. There are areas we have to clean up in our game and we know that. We're going to face a very tough opponent in the first game, and that's something our guys will be prepared for."
The United States won two of its three warm-up games, including a 10-1 rout of Switzerland and a 3-2 victory over host Finland, another team expected to contend for a medal.
"They're a very highly skilled team, and they play a very good team game," Lowry said. "They have some dynamic forwards, and it's going to be a challenge that we get right off the bat."