Through three years of disappointment, Angelo Esposito never gave up on himself or the hockey dreams of his country.
"I'm always rooting for Canada," he said today, referring to being cut three times from the national junior team before making this year. “I always wanted to be here. Now I am.”
“Here,” of course, is at the world junior hockey championships playing for gold tonight against Sweden at Scotiabank Plaza before another crowd of 20,000 customers or more desperately hoping to see Canada win for the fifth straight year. Esposito scored a spectacular shorthanded goal in the semifinal shootout victory over Russia, and the Canadians will need those kinds of big plays from their skilled players to emerge victorious tonight.
“It think we’ve been building up all tournament,” said Esposito. “Tonight’s the final step.”
It was low-key in the Canadian camp this morning, with the only news, really, being that winger Zach Boychuk again missed practice with his wonky ankle. Still, Boychuk is expected to play, much-criticized Dustin Tokarski will be in net and the unbeaten Swedes, at least in Pat Quinn’s mind, are the favourites.
“Going in, everyone said the Swedes were the team to beat,” said Quinn, who took over the team in August after Benoit Groulx stepped down. “Well, we’re standing there right with them.”
Canada’s Olympic executive director, Steve Yzerman, dropped by the Canadian dressing room this morning and sat in on post-practice meetings with Quinn.
“In Game 7s, or Stanley Cup finals, or tournament finals, the key is to find a way to be calm and relaxed,” said Yzerman, who played on a badly injured knee to help Canada win gold at the Salt Lake Olympics seven years ago.
He doubted whether being at home with be a difference-maker for Canada.
“In general, I’ve found in these situations there’s not a lot to home-ice advantage,” he said.
The Swedes have been favoured to win in Canada before and failed. Back in 1999, the Sedin brothers were supposed to lift Sweden to gold and instead the Swedes lost the bronze medal game to Slovakia.
Still, this is a strong, experienced Swedish team that received help from the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings before the tournament when winger Oscar Moller was permitted to play by GM Dean Lombardi. Moller is the Swedish captain, a feisty, dogged presence up front, while Mattias Tedenby, Magnus Svensson Paajarvi and Mikael Backlund are shifty one-on-one players.
The Swedes have given up only six goals in the tournament. Goaltender Jacob Markstrom, a Florida draft pick, has been excellent, and its worth remembering that when Canada beat the Swedes 4-2 in a pre-tourney game, backup goalie Mark Owuya was in goal for Tre Kronor.
“The team that makes the fewest errors will win,” said Quinn. “You don’t win this game in the afternoon nap, and you don’t win it in the warmup. You win it by playing all night long. So save your energy for that.”