Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Lazar has to be an X-factor for Canada

Curtis Lazar (#27) in action for the Edmonton Oil Kings.
            For Canada, the power might be in the man with the biggest smile.
            When the NHL’s Ottawa Senators allowed Curtis Lazar to participate in this season’s world junior hockey championship tournament in Toronto and Montreal, Canada’s chances at winning its first gold since 2009 got a big boost. The boost doesn’t just come from the fact the skilled forward had three goals and four assists in seven games for Canada at the last world juniors in Malmo, Sweden.
            The 19-year-old Salmon Arm, B.C., product, who has one goal and six assists in 27 games with the Senators, joins the Canadian squad carrying the intangible of a recent championship pedigree. In May, Lazar, who will be Canada’s captain, helped the Edmonton Oil Kings win their second Western Hockey League title in three years, and then the Memorial Cup for Canadian Hockey League supremacy. The Memorial Cup win was the first for the modern era Oil Kings, who began play in the fall of 2007.
            When the Oil Kings advanced to major junior hockey’s biggest stage, they were trying to end a league-wide drought, as a WHL team hadn’t claimed the Memorial Cup since the 2008 victory by the Spokane Chiefs. The WHL was facing its longest stretch without winning the big prize since it started competing for the Memorial Cup in 1971.
            The stretch was known as “The Curse of the Drop,” because the Memorial Cup was dropped after the trophy presentation, when it was being exchanged by Chiefs players Chris Bruton and Trevor Glass.
The Oil Kings ended the curse, and Lazar took centre stage in a number of key moments in the championship run. The biggest came in the semifinal contest of the playoff round at the Memorial Cup at London, Ont.
He scored the winner in triple overtime to deliver the Oil Kings to a 4-3 victory over the Val-d’Or Foreurs to end the longest game in the history of the event lasting 102 minutes and 42 seconds. The tally also vaulted the Oil Kings into the title game.
During that contest, it appeared the scene was set to allow “The Curse of the Drop” to continue. The Oil Kings held a 3-1 lead, but the Foreurs battled back. Guillaume Gelinas found the equalizer inside of the final minute of the third period to tie things up at 3-3 and force overtime.
Edmonton also had a 1-2 record in round robin play, so no one would have thought twice, if they fell in the semifinal. Lazar came through with the overtime winner. Two days later, the Oil Kings would double up the Guelph Storm 6-3 to win the Memorial Cup title.
Leading up to the Memorial Cup, Lazar proved to be a centre figure in helping the Oil Kings win the WHL title. He piled up 41 goals, 35 assists and a plus-41 rating in the plus-minus department in 58 regular season games and netted 10 goals and 12 assists in 21 WHL playoff games.
He had key contributions in the WHL championship series, where the Oil Kings faced the Portland Winterhawks for the third straight year. Entering the series as defending league champions, the Winterhawks, who were 54-13-2-3 in the regular season, were favoured over the Oil Kings, who posted a 50-19-2-1 mark.
The Winterhawks took Games 1 and 2 of the best-of-seven set in Portland and led Game 3 in Edmonton 2-0. Lazar helped turn the tide in contest and the series to that point helping set up an early second period power-play goal by Henrik Samuelsson to cut the Portland lead to 2-1. That sparked a 3-2 comeback victory for the Oil Kings.
In Game 4, Lazar had the insurance goal in a 2-0 victory that allowed Edmonton to tie the series 2-2. The Oil Kings added a 3-2 win in Portland in Game 5, before getting knocked to the ropes again.
Looking to win the series in Game 6 in Edmonton, the Oil Kings led 5-2 heading into the third, but the Winterhawks roared back with four straight goals to claim a 6-5 overtime victory. The two clubs were going back to Portland for a winner-take-all Game 7, and the Winterhawks had all the momentum.
Lazar provided the final turning point of the series in the deciding game. Locked in a 1-1 tie in the second, he scored a short-handed goal to put the Oil Kings up 2-1. The lead bulged to 4-1, before finishing up as a 4-2 Edmonton win.
When Canada starts opening round play on Friday night against Slovakia at the Bell Centre in Montreal, other storylines will be at the forefront. As far as the Canadian roster goes, there is a high interest level to see how 17-year-old phenom Connor McDavid of the Ontario Hockey League’s Erie Otters will do. There are high expectations he will be selected first overall in the next NHL Entry Draft, and the shifty forward is one of Canada’s two alternate captains.
Up front, Canada is loaded with offensive talent with the likes of Max Domi (London Knights, OHL), Anthony Duclair (New York Rangers, NHL) and alternate captain Sam Reinhart (Kootenay Ice, WHL). It also feels a disservice to the forward group to not mention everyone.
The back end will be anchored by Josh Morrissey, who is a prospect of the NHL’s Winnipeg Jets and was recently traded in the WHL to the Kelowna Rockets. Zachary Fucale (Halifax Mooseheads, QMJHL) and Eric Comrie (Tri-City Americans, WHL) will be the tandem in goal.
While watching world juniors is a Christmas time tradition in Canada, the automatic feeling that the Canadian team will win gold like from 2005 to 2009 is not there. Canada has finished fourth at the last two world juniors and hasn’t appeared in the gold medal game since 2011, when Russia skated away with a 5-3 victory in Buffalo, N.Y.
In order for the gold medal drought to not stretch through a sixth tournament, Canada will eventually need someone to step up in clutch and character situations. The pressure of playing in the extreme fishbowl hockey markets of Toronto and Montreal only adds to the intrigue.
In Lazar, Canada has a player that delivered in the clutch to help a league break a drought. It would only be natural for him to help a country break a drought, while smiling all the way.

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