An early side show to the upcoming World Junior Championships has been the budding bout of jabbering between Canada and Sweden.
Canada posted a 4-1 win in an exhibition game Tuesday night in the Air Canada Centre before about 12,000 fans mostly clad in red and white. When the teams meet again on New Year's Eve in HSBC Arena, it will be for keeps. The winner of that preliminary round matchup will probably win its group and earn a semifinal bye.
The Swedes finished third last year in Saskatoon and are generally considered the top challenge to another Canada-USA gold medal game. Team captain Anton Lander, a 2009 second-round pick of the Edmonton Oilers, apparently feels that mantle is well deserved.
Asked last week about his thoughts on the tournament, Lander raised plenty of eyebrows when he said that the U.S. would be Sweden's biggest challenger. The Swedes were given a pep talk by national legend and longtime Toronto Maple Leafs captain Mats Sundin before they left Stockholm and that's when Lander made his case.
"Sometimes the media will blow stuff up a bit and we understand that," said Canada winger Zack Kassian of Windsor, Ont., the Buffalo Sabres' No. 1 draft pick in 2009. "But we certainly don't want anyone thinking we're an easy team by any means. No way."
"There will always be some trash talking," said Canada winger Marcus Foligno, the other Buffalo draftee. "[We] won't retaliate in that way, I can tell you that. It's what he thinks. Fine. The biggest thing is to shut him up with what we do on the ice."
Kassian, who teamed with Foligno and Sean Couturier on Canada's second line, scored a power-play goal to give Canada a 2-0 lead at 6:43 of the second period. It was a nifty backhand flip to the right of goalie Robin Lehner after Kassian pulled the puck around the Swedish netminder.
"Our coaches are stressing to get pucks to the net," Kassian said. "The rebound came right there and I was able to tuck it home."
It was a chippy game at times over the final 30 minutes. There were 16 penalties and Canada was just 1 for 10 on the power play.
"Every time we play Sweden they tend to be a little chippy," Kassian said. Coming into Toronto with a great lively crowd was exciting. We didn't worry about what [Lander] said. We just wanted to get a win."
"You want to get ahead a bit and let them know you'll be ready for the next game," said Canada's Brayden Schenn, who opened the scoring at 7:32 of the first period. "It was great to get this kind of support and see what the fans will be like playing in front of the big crowds we'll see in Buffalo."
Canada has its final exhibition Thursday in Kitchener against Finland. It opens the tournament Sunday at 4 against Russia.