WJC Takeaways: Undrafted heroes shine bright in Canada’s tournament-opening win

Canada's goaltender Mathis Rousseau (30) makes a save against Finland's Jere Lassila (28) during third period hockey action at the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship in Gothenburg, Sweden on Tuesday, Dec. 26, 2023. (Christinne Muschi/CP)

Team Canada’s quest for a third straight gold medal at the world junior championship opened on a victorious note with a 5-2 win over Finland on Tuesday.

Despite the obvious star-fuelled storylines heading into this Boxing Day contest (Canada’s Macklin Celebrini is projected to be selected first overall and Finnish forward Konsta Helenius isn’t far behind him in the latest rankings) it was a pair of undrafted players who ultimately stood out as goaltender Mathis Rousseau held steady in the win and Owen Allard’s bottom-six line brought the early offence.

It wasn’t a perfect win from Canada — penalties will need to be addressed moving forward, and bumpy starts to each period spelled trouble at times as the team leaned on goaltending more than most — but it did give us a glimpse into what we might expect from the team in red and white moving forward.  

Here are our top takeaways from Tuesday’s tournament-opening win:

Rousseau steals the show early with save-of-the-tournament contender

A mere 15 minutes into Canada’s first game of the tournament might be a bit early to be making any grand pronouncements, but an exception may need to be made for Rousseau’s first-period heroics against the Finns.

Late in the opening period of a scoreless game, Rousseau absolutely robbed Finland’s Lenni Hameenaho on a 2-on-0 rush that saw Janne Naukkarinen draw in Rousseau only to make a nifty pass to his linemate in an attempt to set up an open-net tap-in. But Rousseau shut the door, sprawling crease-wide to stump Hameenaho with a dazzling glove save.

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What could’ve been a tone-setter for the Finns after both offences ironed out early-tournament kinks wound up bringing a shift in momentum that favoured the Canucks — about a minute after Rousseau’s remarkable save, Canada opened the scoring with a goal from Nate Danielson.

In two NHL drafts, Rousseau, 19, was passed over. The QMJHL Halifax Mooseheads netminder is undersized by NHL goaltending standards (he measures in at 5-foot-11) but showed off his athleticism in a big way Tuesday with his 24-save performance in his WJC debut. Tabbed as Canada’s starter since the club touched down in Europe prior to the holidays, Rousseau’s journey through this tournament will be a key storyline to watch. This is the second year in a row that Team Canada has named an undrafted netminder as its starter for the tournament. Last year, it was Thomas Milic who played a starring role for Canada, backstopping the squad to gold. Milic, who like Rousseau entered the tournament as a twice-undrafted prospect, finally got his draft moment last June when the Winnipeg Jets selected him in the fifth round.

Should Rousseau keep playing at his tournament-opening pace, it wouldn’t be surprising to hear a team call his name in Vegas next summer.

At the other end of the ice, Finnish goaltender Niklas Kokko also played a really solid game. He saved 26 of 29 shots, coming up clutch early to stifle several of Canada’s first-period attempts to find their flow. The 19-year-old was drafted in the second round by the Seattle Kraken in 2022, and Kraken fans should be pretty happy about that pick.

Allard, Danielson make an early splash on offence

Rousseau wasn’t the only undrafted player to shine in Tuesday’s tournament-opening spotlight. Forward Owen Allard, another twice-undrafted NHL hopeful, got off to a hot start in Sweden. Allard was all over the ice in the first frame and was rewarded in the second with a goal to make it 2-0 Canada. The goal was assisted by linemate Danielson, scorer of Canada’s tournament-opening marker one period earlier. Technically, Allard, Danielson, and Owen Beck made up the nation’s third-line checking unit, but the trio wound up being Canada’s most productive on the day. They collaborated on Canada’s first two goals and Danielson was named Canada’s player of the game for his efforts.

On a team that finds itself flirting with underdog status after big-name offensive stars like Connor Bedard and Adam Fantilli weren’t made available for Team Canada by their NHL clubs, Allard is a fitting early contender for fan favourite on the Canadian side just one game into the tournament. He’s had quite the path to get here, after all. Allard went undrafted in his first year of eligibility after struggling in his first OHL season and his quest to make good on his second opportunity in 2023 was cut short due to a shoulder injury that limited him to just 14 games in 2022-23.

Celebrini’s (delayed) goal celebration worth the wait

While the hard-hitting, forechecking unit got Canada on the board early, it was the team’s biggest star that sealed the deal. Celebrini, the presumptive No. 1 overall draft pick, put Canada up 3-1 just under seven minutes into the third period — a goal that was initially not called, but quickly earned a second look by officials and was deemed good.

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Though the celebration for the go-ahead goal (later considered the winner with a final score of 5-2) was delayed, it didn’t lose any of its significance. All eyes have been on Celebrini during camp and pre-tournament action, but through 20 minutes of Canada’s opening game the 17-year-old wasn’t getting much time in the spotlight. Listed as Canada’s fourth-line centre in the pre-game lineup, Celebrini was eased into the action but when he touched the puck, the skill was immediately obvious. Celebrini finished the game with one goal and a team-high four shots on goal.

Next up: Canadians won’t need to wait long before the team returns to the ice. They’ll face Latvia on Wednesday.

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