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Dzierkals returns from injury to lead Latvia at World Juniors

Leafs prospect Martins Dzierkals is confident his Team Latvia can make history at the 2017 World Juniors.

Rouyn-Noranda Huskies v Quebec Remparts Photo by Mathieu Belanger/Getty Images

After more than a month off with an ankle injury, Toronto Maple Leafs draftee Martins Dzierkals has returned to action at the 2017 World Juniors with high aspirations.

“It feels better but I’m still taping my ankle and it’s not 100 percent but our doctors are trying to do everything so that I can play without pain,” Dzierkals said of the nagging injury.

Dzierkals, who plays on a line with San Jose Sharks prospect Rudolf Balcers and undrafted forward Filips Buncis, is representing Latvia for the fifth consecutive year internationally.

Last year, in Austria for the Division I tournament, Dzierkals posted five points in as many games to help Latvia to the title, earning a berth in this year’s World Juniors after a four-year hiatus. The year before, he had nine points in six games at the Under-18 Worlds.

While pursuing the Div. I title, he knew that playing at the Air Canada Centre (ACC) for the first time was a possibility.

“It’s a wonderful feeling, seriously,” the 6-0, 170-pound forward said of his first game at the ACC. “That’s my team. I was here at the World Cup watching games and it’s an amazing atmosphere up there from the stands and it feels great to play in this rink. It was a big aspiration to win that tournament and get back to the best under-20 division.”

Now, behind chants of “LATVIA! LATVIA!” Dzierkals feels he can help his country make history with a strong generation of talent.

“We have a lot of Latvian people living in Canada, or parents, or friends, and everyone comes here to support us and that helps us too,” Dzierkals said following Latvia’s 6-1 loss to Team USA. “I think we’re going to go for big things for sure. Our goal right now is quarterfinals and I feel good about it right now, I feel 100 percent that we will do it.”

With Latvia, Dzierkals plays the wing on the top powerplay at 5-on-4 and the points at 5-on-3 and 4-on-3.

On Boxing Day, in Latvia’s opener against the United States, he created his team’s best scoring chances, using his high-end side-to-side cuts to control the play offensively and draw a penalty while playing also physical style — despite his injury.

And the Americans took note.

“Martins and I knew each other through development camp and the draft and he’s a real good player, real shifty guy,” fellow Leafs prospect and Team USA forward Jeremy Bracco said after the game. “I think we saw that tonight. He’s a good player and I think he should have a real big impact in this tournament.”

Dzierkals remembers being home in Latvia to watch them upset Switzerland in the elimination round of the 2014 Sochi Olympics before taking Canada to a narrow 2-1 margin. Now he wants to make history in the same way.

“Almost everyone who watches hockey in Latvia, we were all watching those last games of the Olympic Games on TV, including me,” Dzierkals, taken 68th overall in the 2015 NHL Draft, said. “Against Canada, when the score was 1-1 all game, that was amazing and everyone in Latvia was cheering. Everyone knew. It’s inspirational. Everyone wants to be in their spot.”

Last year, after joining the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies for his rookie season in the QMJHL, Dzierkals posted 67 points in 59 games before posting 17 points in 20 playoff games on route to the championship.

This year, before his injury, Dzierkals started his season with 27 points (12 goals, 15 assists) in 22 games — good for 23rd in the QMJHL in points per game.

In his second year in the QMJHL, Dzierkals is being counted on by his teammates and coaches to help prepare for Team Canada’s players.

“They ask me questions but I’m not going to tell you,” he said with a laugh and a smile.