What we learned about Canada in WJC preliminary round

What we’ve learned from Canada so far: Carter Hart might be the best starter its had since Carey Price. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Blinch)

After blasting Denmark 8-0 on Saturday, Team Canada grabbed 10 of a possible 12 points and wrapped up top spot in Group A with a near blemish-free 3-0-1 record through the preliminary round at the 2018 world juniors. A relatively smooth first four contests yielded wins against Finland, Slovakia and the Danes, while a shootout loss to the U.S. during the outdoor game — after giving up two, two-goal leads — was the club’s only scuff on its record so far.

The real tournament begins when the medal round does and, just as most predicted prior to the event, Canada finds itself alongside Team USA, Finland and Sweden as the standout contenders to take gold. A few questions have been answered for Canada, factors that will continue to be the keys to its chances of climbing back to the top of the WJC podium.

Here are three things we’ve learned about the Canadians, and their place in the 2018 WJC so far:

For the first time in a long time, goaltending isn’t a concern

It seems the largest cloud hanging over Canada’s gold medal chances every tournament the past decade or so is its goaltending. Carey Price was the last true No. 1 they’ve had entering the tournament and, since then, the position has proved at times to be the country’s Achilles heel. This time around, however, Carter Hart gives Canada the best starter in the tournament and one who came into the 2018 event as the hottest junior-aged goaltender on the planet.

The Philadelphia Flyers’ second-rounder has posted mind-bending numbers through his first 17 starts with the WHL’s Everett Silvertips, boasting a minuscule 1.32 GAA and an obscene .961 save percentage. His economy of movement and calming influence in the crease is exactly what Canada was hoping he’d bring when handing him the starter’s spot, and he cruises into the medal round with a 2-0-1 record, one shutout and a .940 save percentage.

The team’s offence starts from the back end

The last-minute addition of Montreal Canadiens rookie Victor Mete was a huge boost after Canada already looked to have, top-to-bottom, the most offensively-talented blue line in the group, if not the tournament. Coming in with point-per-game guys like Conor Timmins and Jake Bean, along with Kale Clague’s 47 points and an uber-talent (but slightly overlooked) Cale Makar, it was expected that a lot of Canada’s goal-scoring would be initiated from the back end.

That’s proven true so far, with Canada’s D-corps posting 14 points in the four preliminary-round contests, and Makar emerging as the hot-hand with two tallies. They’ve shown an uncanny ability to get shots on net through traffic and their zone entries as a whole have been smooth and efficient. They don’t have the household name like Sweden does with surefire 2018 No. 1 overall pick Rasmus Dahlin, but they have seven guys who are pretty special – especially with the puck on their stick.

With no clear favourite, the field is wide open

Though Canada dropped a tight one in a shootout during blistery conditions at the first-ever outdoor game at the world juniors, the club showed it can certainly compete with the pre-tournament Group A favourite Team USA. Aside from that test, Canada cruised to (expected) victories over Slovakia and Denmark after a tight one with Finland en route to locking up top spot. Slovakia pulled off the shocker of the opening round and one of the bigger upsets in recent memory with a thrilling 3-2 win over the Americans, proving that the Stars and Stripes do have vulnerabilities.

Sweden, as expected, have looked solid right from the get-go and sit atop Group B, outscoring opponents 16-4 through its first three contests. Alongside the U.S., Sweden boasts star power with Alex Nylander, Vancouver Canucks No. 5 overall pick Elias Pettersson and aforementioned Dahlin. The Czechs and Russians have looked solid so far, too, while a pesky Swiss club is always a candidate to provide an upset in a sudden death format like the medal round.

Canada will likely draw Switzerland in the quarters and will likely have to get through two of Team USA, Sweden and Finland to capture its second gold medal since 2009. Goaltending and offensive output from the blue line will determine if it can make that happen or not.

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