TORONTO -- It's a smile that lights up and energizes a nation.
Curtis Lazar's ever-present grin has been the backdrop for a team trying to win Canada's first gold medal at the IIHF World Junior Championship since 2009.
Lazar (Ottawa Senators) is Canada's captain and leader. In a pressure-packed event where the host country is expected to succeed, he has drawn on his experience from a year ago, when Canada finished fourth after losing 2-1 to Russia in the bronze-medal game. That loss came two days after a 5-1 loss to Finland in the semifinal.
He had three goals and seven points in Malmo, Sweden, at the 2014 WJC, but Lazar knew it would be different playing the 2015 WJC in Canada in front of family and friends, not to mention a hockey-mad nation that expects nothing less than gold.
"The big part is the distractions," Lazar said. "The returning guys really wanted to focus on the team and what we do in the dressing room knowing that we're going to have support from our fans and our great country. We knew going into the tournament there is room for no errors. You have to play disciplined hockey and make high-percentage plays."
Lazar's participation in the 2015 WJC was not set in stone. The 6-foot, 190-pound center was selected by the Senators with the 17th pick of the 2013 NHL Draft. After leading the Edmonton Oil Kings of the Western Hockey League to a Memorial Cup championship last season, the 19-year-old earned a spot with the Senators out of training camp. In 27 games this season he has one goal and seven points while averaging 12:45 of ice time per game. It wasn't until Canada's final WJC training camp was underway that Ottawa permitted him to join the team. He was named captain shortly after his arrival.
"Every day he comes to the rink and he works hard," Canada coach Benoit Groulx said. "The way he acts is contagious in the dressing room. He's got that swagger and he is very confident. He believes in himself and he believes in his teammates. He is a competitor who wants to win and he's a big-time team guy."
Canada coasted through the WJC preliminary round, winning all four of its games by a combined score of 21-4. In the quarterfinals Friday, Canada beat Denmark 8-0. Lazar had two goals and an assist in the game, and his five goals are tied for the tournament lead.
While Lazar is all business when the puck drops, he is a constant source of passion and encouragement off the ice, where his ever-present smile is a common topic of conversation among his teammates.
Anthony Duclair (New York Rangers) was asked if he ever has played with such a cheery teammate.
"I haven't," Duclair said. "Everybody talks about it and it's pretty cool. He's just a happy and jolly-go-lucky guy and we like it that way. He's always happy but he's a great leader. In the room he puts his experiences out there and lays it on the line and says the right things."
Max Domi (Arizona Coyotes) agreed.
"He's the happiest guy we have all met," Domi said. "He's a great leader on and off the ice. Not only that, he has been putting the puck in the back of the net and that is great to see too."
Domi said one goal of he and his teammates during the tournament has been to try to throw Lazar off his game. They've been unsuccessful so far.
"There's not a lot that we can do to rattle him," Domi said. "When we are off the ice we try to see if we can get him a little angry but it never works. He always has the smile, and it's tough to be angry when you're around that guy."
In terms of offense, Lazar is one of a handful of weapons Canada boasts. Sam Reinhart (Buffalo Sabres) is tied for the tournament lead with nine points and Nicolas Petan (Winnipeg Jets) is tied for fourth with eight points. Domi, who some feel has been Canada's best player thus far, has four goals and seven points.
Connor McDavid, who is expected to be the first player chosen in the 2015 NHL Draft, has two goals and seven points after missing five weeks with an injury to his right hand.
Canada has a lot of weapons, but it all comes back to Lazar.
"It's pretty nice to have a leader who calms everyone else like he does," Reinhart said. "He can be serious when it is needed, but the composure he brings to the table is the most important thing for sure."
It's no big deal according to Lazar.
"I'm happy to be here and happy to be contributing," he said. "Hopefully we can keep it going."