Alexis Lafreniere had his doubters entering the world junior championship.
Was he good enough to go first overall? Or was his Canadian teammate Quinton Byfield a better option to hear his name called at No. 1 next June at the NHL draft in Montreal?
The 18-year-old Lafreniere put any critics to rest on Thursday during a tournament-opening 6-4 win for Canada over the United States in Ostrava, Czech Republic. The Canadians snapped a four-game losing streak against the U.S. at the world juniors with the win.
While Arizona Coyotes forward Barrett Hayton may have been a better finisher with two goals, Lafreniere’s elite skill was on display throughout as he finished with one goal and three assists.
His goal proved to be the winner and it came at the most opportune time.
The Canadians had just conceded a second power-play goal by Ottawa Senators prospect Shane Pinto that helped the U.S. equalize at 4-4. But a mere seven seconds later, Lafreniere took the puck, raced in and deked out American goaltender Spencer Knight to give Canada the lead once again.
Lafreniere set up offensive plays throughout for the Canadians and certainly lived up to the hype in his first game under the international spotlight in his draft year.
One of five returnees from last year’s team, the Saint-Eustache, Que., native had a nice dangle through the legs of an American defender on the power play in the the first period, but an ensuing shot from his teammate was blocked.
In the third period, he used tremendous puck control in tight to feed Hayton for his second with a nice dish for another power-play goal.
It was an impressive performance overall, but paid dividends as Canada opened the tournament on a positive note and ended the U.S.’s run of 12-straight opening game wins at the world juniors.
Canada next plays on Saturday against Russia, who is 0-1 after a loss to host Czech Republic earlier Thursday. The Americans, who lost to Finland in last year’s final, face Germany on Friday in their second game.
Here are some more takeaways from the victory:
Special teams a key
The Canadians only had three power-play goals all of last year — an early exit as they fell in the quarterfinals against Finland.
Canada had three goals on the man advantage on Thursday.
It was a stark juxtaposition between the first and second periods for Canada as it allowed two goals on the power play in the first period. Zac Jones launched a point shot which was tipped in front by Pinto before an Arthur Kaliyev goal later in the period put the U.S. up 2-0.
Canada started to calm down in the second period and controlled play. A goal by its fourth line, finished by Washington Capitals first rounder Connor McMichael, got them on the board.
The Canadians would then strike with a pair of power-play goals by Hayton and Nolan Foote put them ahead before the end of the period.
Overall, both teams went 3-for-5 on the power play.
Knight’s glove-side a downside
The Canadians started to abuse the left glove-hand of Knight in the second period with a pair of power-play goals.
First it was captain Hayton with a one-timer which landed in the top corner off a pass by Lafreniere.
It happened again later in the second when Foote walked in off the far hashmarks and sniped a wrist shot in almost the exact same location.
The goals provided Canada with a big spark and helped them gain a 3-2 advantage going into the second intermission. They outshot the U.S. 16-8 in the period.
Veleno finds game
When Hockey Canada announced it would be getting Joe Veleno back from the Grand Rapids Griffins of the AHL, it was a big get for the Canadians.
Although he had been struggling at the AHL level — his first year as a pro — there had to be a reason why he made it to this point in his well documented hockey career so far.
He showed those skills throughout Canada’s opener with dips and weaves through both the neutral and offensive zone. It paid off as he drew a hooking penalty in the third on Spencer Stastney which Hayton converted on.
• Vancouver Canucks draft pick Nils Höglander did the Michigan. And it was great.
• Yaroslav Askarov, a 2020 NHL draft eligible goaltender, had a world junior debut to forget, stopping 13-of-17 shots in two periods of action as Russia lost 4-3 to the host Czech Republic. Askarov let in a pair of soft goals in the first period as nerves seemed to get the better of him.
• Maple Leafs fans will like this goal by U.S. forward Nick Robertson…
4-3 CAN pic.twitter.com/9wd1JsdRcT
— Here's Your Replay ⬇️ (@HeresYourReplay) December 26, 2019