VANCOUVER — A little adversity has helped some of Canada’s young players reach a new level at the world junior hockey championship, says the team’s head coach.
Tim Hunter benched 17-year-old Alexis Lafreniere and 18-year-old Joe Veleno in the third period of Thursday’s 3-2 victory over Switzerland, saying the pair weren’t playing well.
Lafreniere responded by putting up a big goal in Canada’s 5-1 win over the Czech Republic on Saturday. Veleno notched an assist on another play as Canada improved to 3-0.
"When guys are challenged and talked to directly … they understand the process and they understand the trust factor," Hunter said after Saturday’s victory.
"For the first time in their careers, (Veleno and Lafreniere) faced a little adversity, they missed some shifts. They haven’t had that happen to them before. So, I get that, poor guys are a little despondent at times and you have to communicate to them about the process."
Lafreniere has lit up the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, where he plays for the Rimouski Oceanic and has put up 17 goals and 34 assists so far in his second season.
The six-foot-one, 192-pound forward has played to his identity in the world junior tournament, but not consistently, Hunter said.
"And that’s typical. He’s only 17," he said. "I’m not looking for him to be perfect, but when he’s not perfect, he’s not going to play as much. And he understands that."
Lafreniere, the ninth-youngest player to play for Canada in the history of the event, agreed with the coach’s critiques.
"I have to improve my defensive game without the puck. He’s right. I have to get better and that’s what I tried to do tonight," he said, adding that Saturday night’s goal was a weight off his shoulders.
Captain Maxime Comtois, Brett Leason, Morgan Frost and MacKenzie Entwistle also scored for defending champion Canada on Saturday.
Ondrej Machala put up the lone goal for the Czechs (0-1-0-2), who finished fourth last year after losing 7-2 to Canada in the semis in Buffalo.
Jiri Patera — who plays for the Western Hockey League’s Brandon Wheat Kings — made 16 saves before he was swapped out to start the third period.
Jakub Skarek stepped in to fill the Czech net and stopped nine-of-10 shots.
Vancouver Canucks prospect Michael DiPietro stopped 23-of-24 for Canada, including a leaping glove save on a penalty kill midway through the second period.
The netminder said his team is getting better as the tournament goes on.
"We’re not putting up 14 goals, but being stronger in little areas," he said, referring to Canada’s 14-0 Boxing Day blowout against Denmark. "I think it’s just the way we’re playing, kind of the make-up of our team, we’re playing to our identity and the offence is going to come."
Getting that offence takes an entire roster, not just a top line, Hunter said.
"To win games you have to get scoring through the lineup. Because your No. 1 lines and your No. 2 line aren’t going to score every night," he said. "It’s like a playoff series — if you expect your top line to score every night in a playoff series, good luck."
Entwistle, who started the tournament as the 13th forward, is the only Canadian to have goals in each of the first three games.
While he’s had a carousel of linemates across those matchups, the Chicago Blackhawks prospect said they’re all great players, which makes the changes easier.
"We all have some size, we all have some skill and playing down low behind their net is what we need to do. We’ve been doing that and developing some chemistry," he said. "Obviously, it’s tough to get in a groove but later on in the game it’s a little bit easier."
The Canadians will finish up round-robin play Monday when they battle Russia.
NOTES: Comtois was injured on Saturday. Hunter said after the game that he did not know the nature or severity of the injury. … Canada’s Morgan Frost was leading the tournament’s scoring race after Saturday’s game with seven points. Close behind was Comtois with six and Switzerland’s Philipp Kurashev, who also had six. … Canada went into Saturday’s game one-for-eight with the man advantage but emerged with a pair of power-play goals.