GOTHENBURG, Sweden — Macklin Celebrini hasn’t often been an outsider in his life.
The same goes for Canada when the country takes to the ice for an international tournament.
However, before the Junior Ice Hockey World Championships in 2024, the strong nation is not considered the favorite – at least from an outside perspective.
And it fits well with the group.
“We don’t really focus on it,” said Celebrini, a 17-year-old center from Vancouver who is expected to go No. 1 in June’s NHL draft. “These are all just opinions. We’re excited to get started and prove who we are.”
This is a team that lacks a lot of quality NHL talent, but showed what it’s made of in its final game before the tournament.
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Canada trailed 5-3 after two periods on Saturday against the United States, which has a number of returning players in the under-20 competition and is considered the country to beat -5 losses.
“The energy and the freshness of this third period sparked something,” said head coach Alan Letang after training on Monday at the Scandinavium Arena in Gothenburg. “There was a moment in the second where it was a bit quiet on the bench and I looked at (assistant Shaun Clouston) and thought, ‘There’s not much talking here.’ We had to deal with it.
“They brought the energy and passion we needed.”
That and more will await Letang when Canada faces Finland in the opening game of the tournament on Tuesday (8:30 a.m. ET).
“They want to shoot, they want to attack the net,” he said of the Finns. “Our puck management is going to be huge. We are putting pressure on the USA. If we can put pressure on them, I think we can turn some pucks over and be successful.”
Celebrini said the final half against the Americans showed what the group is capable of at the annual showcase.
“Something we will focus on and try to reproduce,” he said. “But even when things don’t go your way, you have to find ways to win. We have the group that can do it.”
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Canada captain Fraser Minten said his team paid no attention to outside predictions.
“I don’t think we’re too worried about it or even hearing about it,” the Toronto Maple Leafs prospect said. “We believe we are at the top. We should be at the top as favorites for the gold medal.”
Meanwhile, Mathis Rousseau won the battle for the first goal for Canada ahead of Scott Ratzlaff and Samuel St-Hilaire.
“Workhorse,” Letang said. “He came in and grabbed that spot.”
The goaltender from Boisbriand, Que., who was passed over in all seven rounds of the last two NHL drafts, is looking forward to his chance in the spotlight.
“You don’t really think you’re going to grow up here,” Rousseau said. “Now you’re here. You don’t fully grasp the moment, but it’s pretty incredible.”
Canada’s group includes the Finns, hosts Sweden, Latvia and Germany. On the other side of the bracket are the USA, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Switzerland and Norway.
The Canadiens have those well-documented absences from the NHL roster – including Connor Bedard and Adam Fantilli – but got reinforcements from the Boston Bruins when they sent center Matthew Poitras to the national team.
“A lot of excitement,” said the 19-year-old from Brooklin, Ont. “Hopefully go to bed and not think too much about the game. Really ready to get started.”
Letang saw a faster, more inspired Canada in his latest revision.
Favorite or not, he’ll want to take the same approach against Finland as the North Americans begin their climb toward a possible third straight gold medal.
“In this room we know what our identity is and how we want to play,” he said. “If we play like that, we’ll like the results.”
Minten, who played four times for the Leafs before returning to the junior ranks after opting out of training camp, was named captain Sunday night.
“It’s nice to be recognized as a leader,” said the 19-year-old center from Vancouver. “Very proud and honored to wear the ‘C’ for Canada here.”
Celebrini said the group has grown closer since their trip to Europe following the selection camp in Oakville, Ont.
“This is what happens when you spend the holidays together,” he said. “We had to be a small family. We came together and formed a great team.”
LUNEAU IN THE HOSPITAL
Letang said defenseman Tristan Luneau, an Anaheim Ducks prospect who was expected to be a key part of the blue line before contracting a viral infection that forced Canada to call for a replacement, remains hospitalized.
“Not an ideal situation,” said the coach.
Members of Luneau’s family are expected in Sweden soon, but Letang added he was in good spirits and should be released from hospital in the next day or two.
“He’s in our thoughts,” Letang said. “He will cheer.”