Lafreniere won't play against Germany; world junior status up in the air

The Canadian Press

OSTRAVA, Czech Republic — Alexis Lafreniere flashed a smile as he watched the tail end of practice Sunday.

There was also a clear sense of relief.

After crumpling to the ice and clutching his left knee in agony following an awkward fall some 18 hours earlier, it was revealed the star winger will miss Canada's next game at the world junior hockey championship.

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The good news, however, is Lafreniere hasn't been ruled out for the rest of the tournament.

"He's walking," assistant coach Andre Tourigny said Sunday, adding in a separate media availability with French reporters that an MRI done on the joint showed no fracture or structural damage to ligaments. "It's positive news."

Canada could certainly use some after getting spanked 6-0 by Russia on Saturday in the most lopsided defeat for the national program in the under-20 event's 44-year history.

Lafreniere, who was hurt early in the second period, sat in the penalty box Sunday as his teammates went through their paces. He then got up and walked towards the locker room without any sign of a brace or limp.

"As a coach, we try to know if (Lafreniere) will play," Tourigny added. "(The doctor) didn't say he will play, but he didn't say he won't."

Lafreniere is set to watch Canada's game with Germany on Monday, but could be available Tuesday against the host Czech Republic or when the medal round starts Thursday.

"He's smiling around the boys and making jokes," Tourigny said. "He's pretty loose right now, so it's a good sign."

The reigning CHL Player of the Year and projected No. 1 pick at the 2020 NHL draft, Lafreniere scored the winner and added three assists in an electric 6-4 victory over the United States on Boxing Day.

The native of the Montreal suburb of Saint-Eustache has 23 goals and 70 points in 32 games this season with the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League's Rimouski Oceanic.

"It's hard for him to not be out here," Canadian captain Barrett Hayton said. "We love having him around and the energy he brings."

Canada then learned late Sunday it will be without 2/3 of its top line — and down to 11 forwards — against Germany after centre Joe Veleno was suspended one game for a head-butting incident in the second period of the loss to Russia.

The 19-year-old Detroit Red Wings' prospect is a crucial part of both the power play and penalty kill, and has been the team's best faceoff man at 57.6 per cent.

Hayton, meanwhile, issued a second mea culpa for failing to remove his helmet during the Russian national anthem in the wake of that blowout defeat.

"I just really want to apologize ... to the Russians, their team and to everyone," said the 19-year-old, who released a statement through the sport's national body late Saturday. "I had no intent behind it, but I have to own my actions."

The Canadians went through a spirited practice Sunday in hopes of putting the Russia game in the rear-view mirror.

They were second-best in almost every area against a desperate opponent coming off a 4-3 loss to the Czechs in the tournament's curtain-raiser.

"Give a lot of credit to the Russians," Tourigny said. "They played hard. They had more urgency than us. Their battle level was higher than ours."

Back in control of its own destiny in Group B after the U.S. downed Russia 3-1 on Sunday, Hayton said complacency was partly to blame for Canada's no-show. 

"It was definitely a wake-up call," he said. "They really took it to us."

The immediate beneficiaries of Lafreniere's absence are Connor McMichael, the OHL's leading scorer until he left for the national team and a member of head coach Dale Hunter's London Knights, and Dawson Mercer — the 13th forward for the first two contests.

McMichael skated on a line with Hayton and Nolan Foote at practice, while Mercer was alongside Veleno, who will have to sit out Monday because of his one-game ban, and Quinton Byfield.

"I'm not doubting our team for a minute," McMichael said. "We'll be a lot better." 

The first player from Newfoundland and Labrador to compete at the world juniors since 2010, Mercer knew coming in he would have to wait his turn.

"I wanted to make sure I still motivated the guys," said the product of Bay Roberts. "You can only move up in the lineup."

The biggest question ahead of the Germany tilt is one that's dominated the conversation all month — the crease.

Starting goalie Nico Daws has allowed eight goals on 50 shots in just over four periods of action. Joel Hofer, meanwhile, made 20 saves in relief against Russia, but hasn't played a full game since Dec. 8 in the WHL.

It's been even longer for Olivier Rodrigue, the third option. He's only practised since selection camp.

"We all feel good," said Daws, who came out of nowhere this season to grab the No. 1 job. "We're all ready to go."

For his part, Hofer said he didn't have time to be nervous in his own international debut. 

"I kind of got thrown in," he said. "Obviously the three of us want to play and represent our country."

Rodrigue is the only goalie with Hockey Canada experience prior to this month, including a gold medal at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup in 2017.

"I'm always ready if they need me," said the Edmonton Oilers' prospect. "If they (call) my name, I'll be ready."

Tourigny said it's important the players exhale after that disastrous performance against Russia.

"You don't want to create any panic," Tourigny said. "When you sit on the edge of your seat and you think, 'Next mistake I will lose my job' ... it's a tough place to be.

"That's a bad pressure."

Canada already has enough of the regular kind.

 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 29, 2019.

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Follow @JClipperton_CP on Twitter

Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press

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