After overseeing Canada's final practice before the IIHF World Hockey Championship, head coach Ken Hitchcock felt his team was ready to get the tournament started. He just wasn't entirely sure what that team would look like.
One of the few certainties about Friday's opener against Belarus (TSN, 2:15 p.m. ET) is that Canada will be playing without a full lineup.
General manager Dave Nonis had his ear pressed to a cellphone throughout Thursday's practice session at Steel Arena, but wasn't able to make any new roster announcements immediately afterwards.
"Dave's been burning up the phone," said Hitchcock. "There's been a lot of calls going back and forth."
Further adding to the uncertainty was forward Antoine Vermette being unable to skate because of a lower-body injury suffered in Wednesday's exhibition win over the Czech Republic. He'll miss the opener as a result.
The biggest news Thursday came from North America, where a number of players recently eliminated from the NHL playoffs indicated they had declined invitations to join the team because of lingering health issues. They included Michael Cammalleri and P.K. Subban of the Montreal Canadiens and Tyler Myers of the Buffalo Sabres.
Hitchcock has 11 healthy forwards and plans to double-shift Rick Nash and Chris Stewart to account for the uneven number.
"Those two guys are going to get big minutes," he said. "I think it will be good for both those big rigs to get more minutes."
With the lineup in a state of flux, European-based defenceman Mario Scalzo also figured to be pressed into action. He took part in training camp as an alternate player, but showed enough during that time to earn the faith of Hockey Canada's brass.
The 26-year-old from Montreal is a dynamic offensive blue-liner and hopes to make the most of whatever opportunity he's given. Scalzo spent the season playing with Mannheim in Germany but hasn't given up hope of one day making it to the NHL.
"It's always been there and always will be," said Scalzo, a former teammate of Sidney Crosby with the QMJHL's Rimouski Oceanic. "It's been my goal since I was a kid like every other guy. Sometimes you have to take different roads maybe to get there."
Mikhail Grabovski is the only NHL player from Belarus expected to participate in Friday's game. Andrei Kostitsyn of the Montreal Canadiens has also committed to the national team but wasn't expected to arrive in time to play Canada.
Grabovski is coming off a career year with the Toronto Maple Leafs and will face three teammates - goalie James Reimer and defencemen Dion Phaneuf and Luke Schenn.
Reimer, who earned the starting nod over Devan Dubnyk, will be watching out for Grabovski.
"He was chirping me before we came over when we were practising, that he knows my weaknesses," said Reimer. "It was fun little banter.
"I'm sure it'll be a good game out there with him."
The one advantage Belarus holds is familiarity. The majority of players on the team play together with Minsk of the KHL while the Canadian lineup will be cobbled together from 11 different NHL squads and Scalzo's Mannheim Eagles.
"You know, I think it's good for us because guys play second year in KHL and they know how to play together," said Grabovski. "We have more (chemistry) than Canada. ... First game I think it helps us a lot."
A number of Canadian players believe they started to build the necessary chemistry during a training camp split between Paris and Prague. The team is extremely young - Vermette is the oldest on the roster at 28 - and has found plenty of common ground.
"I've really noticed our room, how quick we've jelled," said Phaneuf. "A lot of dinners, travelling together, seeing a lot of the world together.
"It's pretty special to be a part of it."
There will certainly be reinforcements on the way at some point.
In the meantime, Canada should be able to ease its way into the event with a game against France on Sunday following the matchup with Belarus. A tougher test against Switzerland awaits May 3 but Nonis should be able to fill out the roster by then.
"I think right now, these next two games, it's all about us," said Hitchcock. "I think if we play at our level we can beat both teams."
Story ID: S7256 (Via Land-Line Feed)
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