MANNHEIM, Germany – Canada’s oldest player made sure his team’s tentative first steps were in the right direction.
Ray Whitney celebrated his 38th birthday by setting up two nice goals Saturday to spark a 5-1 victory over Italy in Canada’s opening game at the IIHF World Hockey Championship.
The No. 1-ranked nation in hockey found itself tied with a team simply looking to avoid relegation until Whitney made his presence felt. He found Kris Russell with a lovely cross-ice pass late in the first period before connecting with linemate Matt Duchene a few minutes later to give Canada a 3-1 lead.
“It just goes to show you the game’s as much about mental ability as it is about physical ability,” said Canadian coach Craig MacTavish. “Ray played outstanding. He made a terrific play on the power-play goal that Russell got coming down the backside at a pretty critical time in the game.
“His playmaking ability was outstanding tonight.”
Whitney is one of just three players on the Canadian team who is older than 28?captain Ryan Smyth and goalie Chris Mason are both 34?and has taken a bit of good-natured ribbing in the dressing room.
The players were all alerted to the fact it was Whitney’s birthday before the game.
“Maybe we’ll go out and celebrate tonight,” said Steven Stamkos, who had a goal and an assist. “We have a very young team, but we have veteran leaders. For him to come out and make two great passes?he’s a great playmaker obviously still?it’s nice to see that from the veteran guys.
“That’s why they’re our leaders and the young guys are going to follow.”
Added Duchene: “I told him in the dressing room that I couldn’t believe he’s 38. I think he has 10 more years in him.”
Whitney will settle for two or three more seasons in the NHL. He’s come to this world championship looking to win his first medal ever in an international competition and made a strong early statement about his commitment to that goal.
Corey Perry and Rene Bourque also scored in the opener for Canada, which faces Latvia on Monday.
Michele Strazzabosco replied for an overmatched Italian team that is focused on avoiding relegation after participating in the B Pool last year.
“We cannot compete with those guys, they’ve got much more talent than us,” said Strazzabosco. “A game like that is a preparation for the huge games we have coming up.”
Italian coach Rick Cornacchia figured his team had an outside chance if it could keep the game close in the opening 10 minutes and they managed to do it.
Perry opened the scoring for Canada at 2:43 by knocking in the rebound off a Stamkos shot, but Strazzabosco tied it just over 10 minutes later when his big blast from the point beat a screened Mason.
“They could really skate and they jumped on us early,” said Duchene. “I know I had really heavy legs in the first and I had to shake them out. Once we got the concrete shaken out, we got going.”
Said Whitney: “It was a good wakeup for us in the first period.”
In another Group B game, Switzerland beat Latvia 3-1. In Group D, Denmark downed Finland 4-1
The Italians could actually have been ahead at that stage of the game. Mason swept a rolling puck off the goal-line with his arm in the first period before denying Stefano Margoni, who was left alone in front.
He finished with 23 saves to improve his career record in the world championship to 5-0 and wasn’t surprised by the amount of fight shown by the Italians.
“I just know that coming over here and having watched these (tournaments) and being a part of a few of them, you can’t underestimate any team,” said Mason. “You really have to respect every nation.”
It’s a message his coach was preaching as well.
“On paper you look at Canadian history in hockey and the championships that Canada has won over the years, and then you look at Italy?it looks like a pretty significant mismatch,” said MacTavish. “Really at the end of the day it was a pretty close hockey game.”
The focus for the Canadian team will be on finding ways to improve with each game?a patternthe country followed to perfection in winning gold at the Vancouver Olympics three months ago.
Even though this event will receive a fraction of the attention that one did, a reminder of its importance arrived Saturday when Prime Minister Stephen Harper phoned GM Mark Messier following the victory over Italy.
“I will be watching the tournament with great interest,” Harper said in a statement. “Good luck and offer my best wishes to all the players. Make us proud.”