BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA - After a career season with the Edmonton Oilers, defenceman Darnell Nurse is riding a wave of confidence with Team Canada at the 2019 IIHF World Championship in Slovakia - one he hopes sends him back to Canada with a gold medal around his neck.
"We all came here with that goal and vision in our head and it's great to have the opportunity to do it," the 24-year-old said after Canada defeated Czech Republic 5-1 to advance to the gold medal game against Finland on Sunday. "It's not going to be an easy game whatsoever. They're a team that plays so well as a group. They outwork everybody they've played so far, including us. They're the only team that's beat us. So, it's a game where we're going to have to put on our hard hats and go work."
Nurse, who has two goals and two assists through nine games, was also on last year's world championship team and is benefiting from the experience he gained in Denmark.
"This year, I'm a lot more comfortable," he said. "This is a tournament I watched growing up as a kid and dreaming of playing for Team Canada and you're playing with some of the best players in the world, so I don't want to say I was nervous last year, but it's probably the best word to describe it. I didn't want to make any mistakes and wasn't as confident as I could have been or should have been. This year, I'm a lot more confident and I'm enjoying the experience more, but I also want to be relied upon and be a big factor in our team's success."
Head Coach Alain Vigneault has trusted Nurse with an average of 20 minutes per game and has relied heavily on him to shut down the opposition, but has also enjoyed his willingness to jump into the play offensively like he did tonight when he scored the eventual game-winning goal on a wraparound that banked off the goalie and went in.
"He's been real good player for us at both ends of the ice. Defensively, he's very competitive and he makes good reads. And offensively, he's jumped up in the play at the right time, as you saw in tonight's game," he explained. "He's a real stable force back there and has been one of our best defensemen as far as defending and I think he's really thrived on assuming that role of going against the other teams' top lines and he's played well for us."
One of the other lessons he learned at this tournament last year was how to better manage his time and his body.
"Last year, I didn't know what I was doing. I was just absolutely rolling by the seat of my pants," Nurse said with a laugh. "I came over and I felt like I was sleeping every afternoon, all afternoon for two weeks. My body didn't really adjust to the time change. So this year, I got that out of the way the first couple days and then you really have to eat well over here.
"There are games every other day and when you're not playing, you're practicing and that takes a lot out of you. So, being able to refuel and get the rest and recuperate the way you need to be effective on the ice is really important."
This year, his biggest takeaway is how important it is to pay attention to the details.
"When you play a lot of minutes, you really have to manage them, especially on the big ice," he said. "You have to be in position because it's easy to find yourself chasing a lot if you don't. I also think moving my legs is important. I think my legs might be my best asset and being able to move the puck out of our zone and find the open ice."
Nurse is also excited about the rowdy atmosphere at the games as nearly every game has been sold out with fans constantly cheering throughout the game.
"All of these games are pressure-packed situations that are going to be helpful for me once we make it back to the playoffs," he said. "Every game is tight checking and every battle matters, every blocked shot matters and every mistake could wind up in the back of your net. So, the more experience I can get in those high-pressure situations, the more comfortable I'll be and, hopefully, the better I'll play. So, I think it's a huge advantage for me to be able to play in games like this in front of crowds like this. I want to rise to the challenge."
There's one more mountain for Nurse and Team Canada to climb and it's tomorrow at 11:45 a.m. MT against Finland.
"I feel like this tournament has been really good for me personally," he said. "I've been able to contribute a lot more than I did last year, but my goal isn't to just get to the finals. My goal, like everyone else's on this team, is to get a gold medal. It's going to take a lot of hard work, but I'm ready. Let's go."