Canadian Alexis Lafreniere’s ‘relentless’ performance at world juniors wins praise

Canada's Alexis Lafreniere smiles during practice at the World Junior Hockey Championships in Ostrava, Czech Republic, Friday, Dec. 27, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

Kevin Bahl thought he knew Alexis Lafreniere.

And in many ways, he did.

Touted as the projected No. 1 pick at the 2020 NHL draft for some time, Lafreniere had a ridiculous 70 points in 32 games this season with the Rimouski Oceanic — Sidney Crosby’s old junior team — before joining up with Canada ahead of the world junior hockey championship.

The 18-year-old winger makes a habit of jaw-dropping goals, stunning assists and deploying a toolbox of moves that often leave opponents chasing shadows.

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But it didn’t take Bahl, a bruising six-foot-six, 240-pound defenceman, long to realize the native of Saint-Eustache, Que., has even more to give.

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Physical play. Tenacity. Grit. Desire.

It was there for everyone to see in Canada’s 6-4 victory over the United States to open the under-20 tournament Thursday.

Sure, the game will be largely remembered for Lafreniere’s four-point night that included a stunning late winner where he intercepted an airborne pass from American defenceman K’Andre Miller before beating Spencer Knight with a slick forehand move just seven seconds after the U.S. tied proceedings.

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What stood out to Bahl, however, were the early hits Lafreniere threw to help shake Canada from a first-period slumber.

“I thought he was all skill,” said Bahl, who crushed American forward Bobby Brink moments after Lafreniere upped his physical play. “He loves to throw around the body and I absolutely love that.”

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That desire to be in the middle of the fray sounds a lot like Crosby, who had his No. 87 jersey retired by both Rimouski and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in September.

“I always try and bring some physicality in my game,” said the six-foot-one, 194-pound Lafreniere. “Getting involved physically, it’s always good.”

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Bone-jarring checks at key times can do wonders for a team. When a star player gets in on the action, look out.

“It’s crazy when you see Alexis Lafreniere throwing big hits,” added Bahl, whose team’s second game of the tournament goes Saturday against Russia. “He’s got the hands, he’s got the skill. Now he’s going to outwork you in the corners, strip you of the puck, take it to the net.

“It’s just a totally different dynamic. You don’t see a lot of guys do that.”

There were rumblings before the world juniors Lafreniere might be losing his grip on the No. 1 draft position to Canadian teammate Quinton Byfield — a six-foot-four, 215-pound centre with speed, skill and soft hands.

That could still happen, but Lafreniere was a teenager on a mission in Game 1.

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“He can do everything,” Canadian winger Ty Dellandrea said.

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Almost everything, that is.

One thing he isn’t doing is kill penalties, which was a focus at Friday’s practice after the U.S. went 3-for-5 on the power play.

Canada was whistled for three stick infractions and two interference calls, and figuring out the line with officials remains a fact of life in the by-the-book international game.

“We had a pretty long meeting,” said Aidan Dudas, one of the forwards tabbed to kill penalties. “You’ve got to backcheck with your legs and not your stick.”

Canada, which finished a disappointing sixth at last year’s world juniors on home soil, has emphasized the penalty threshold for the last three weeks, including a round of push-ups for every call against.

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“It’s not like we weren’t prepared,” said assistant coach Andre Tourigny, who made one of Thursday’s unheralded plays when he caught a puck on the bench that would have resulted in a late delay-of-game penalty had it gone over the glass. “The team did a really good job to make sure the players knew what the standard was. We applied it during our practices, during our pre-tournament games.

“There’s no reason for what happened.”

Ty Dellandrea, another Canadian penalty killer, said the issues when down a man should melt away once the system becomes second nature.

“We know what we need to do and we know what spots we need to be in,” said the centre. “We were overthinking and getting in our own heads.”

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Tourigny, who’s in charge of the penalty kill, was animated Friday as he went over things with the group while Canada’s power-play units, which also went 3-for-5, worked at the other end of the rink.

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“It was not a question of structure,” said the head coach of the Ontario Hockey League’s Ottawa 67’s. “The players were there, they were in a good position. It’s just a matter of battles. We lost a few battles in front of the net.

“We had some bad luck and a bad day at the office, but I’m not worried.”

The Russians, meanwhile, will be looking to rebound Saturday after a 4-3 loss to the host Czechs that put them behind the 8-ball in a tough Group B that also includes Germany.

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“It’s another great rivalry for us,” Dellandrea said. “U.S. is probably No. 1, but I’d say close behind it is Russia.

“These games are fun, they’re intense, they’re heavy.”

If that’s the case, count Lafreniere in once again.

“He’s a gamer, he’s a money player, he’s a competitor,” Tourigny said. “He wants to win every battle. It’s the same in practice.

“He never quits. He’s relentless.”

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