Day One of the IIHF U20 World Junior Championships didn’t disappoint up north in Halifax, Nova Scotia and Moncton, New Brunswick.
Group play got underway on Boxing Day without any problems. However, there were some surprises on the first day of preliminary action. Depending on who you support, it was exciting to watch.
The biggest story coming out of Monday’s four games was Czechia upsetting tournament favorite Canada 5-2 in the night cap at Halifax.
A team that’s been underestimated coming in despite a strong showing at the ’22 WJC where they reached the semifinals after upsetting USA, the Czechs were determined to prove a point against crowd favorite Canada. By the conclusion of the opening game in Group A, it was Czechia who were the better team earning the victory before a stunned crowd of 10,030 at Scotiabank Centre.
“They outworked us,” acknowledged Rangers prospect Brennan Othmann to the media. “You can’t take any team lightly. They had a good game, so credit to them.”
Czechia had the better of the play at five-on-five and took complete advantage of a controversial match penalty to Zach Dean for an illegal check to the head. They converted twice near the conclusion of a five-minute major and got superior play in net from Tomas Suchanek (undrafted). He earned Czechia Best Player with 36 saves on 38 shots.
Entering play that already seen Switzerland upset Finland 3-2 on an overtime winner by Attilio Biasca in the day’s first action, Canada boasted a top heavy roster that features eight returnees from their gold medal team including future star Connor Bedard and also has added captain Shane Wright, who went fourth to the Kraken in the 2022 NHL Draft.
With a top line of Bedard centering Wright and Othmann along with a potent second line of Dylan Guenther (Coyotes), Logan Stankoven (Stars) and highly rated 2023 Draft Eligible prospect Adam Fantilli, there’s no questioning Canada’s scoring depth and skill. Joshua Roy (Canadiens) on the third line. Key Habs D prospect Olen Zellweger and Kings blue liner Brandt Clarke certainly can get involved.
Despite that, perhaps the experts forgot about the Czechs. They have their own strong blue line that includes David Jiricek (Blue Jackets), Stanislav Svozil (Blue Jackets) David Spacek (Wild), Jiri Tichacek and David Moravec (’23 Draft Eligible). Suchanek is back for his second WJC as are Jaroslav Chmelar (Rangers), Jiri Kulich (Sabres) and Matyas Sapovaliv (Golden Knights).
All of that experience was on full display. Following a nice Wright power play goal on a tip-in of a Zellweger shot that Guenther set up halfway through the first period, Svozil pinched down and perfectly found a wide open Spacek for a tap in at 17:48. Nobody picked him up.
Shockingly, the Czechs struck again 35 seconds later when Moravec let go of a point shot that went through a maze of players by Canadian starter Benjamin Gaudreau to put them in front 2-1 with 1:37 left in the period. Bedard lost a defensive draw to Marcel Marcel. Adam Mechura moved the puck over for Moravec who got his first of the tournament.
Despite a quick start, Canada found plenty of resistance from a feisty Czechia. They battled hard by finishing checks and playing aggressively. Prior to the tying goal from Spacek, they had come close to breaking through on Gaudreau. Canada’s defense didn’t have a good game. By that, the forwards didn’t do their part either.
If they didn’t realize they were in a game, Czechia sure got the message through in the first minute of the second period. On another well designed play, a wide open Svozil finished off a Spacek cross ice feed by wristing one past Gaudreau from the left circle for a 3-1 lead. No forward picked him up. It was a breakdown.
But before they could get comfortable, a bad turnover in the neutral zone allowed Wright to send Bedard in alone. The 17-year old phenom didn’t disappoint. He calmly beat Suchanek with a laser high glove to pull Canada back within one just 45 seconds later. It was astonishing.
Each side had a goal wiped out. The Czechs early on for goalie interference. Canada had one overturned when Czechia wisely challenged for offsides. That prevented Canada from tying it back in the first. Boos were heard from the pro Canadian crowd. But it was the right call.
Down by two, Canada came with pressure on a shift. It was Dean who belted Ales Cech with a tough hit against the back boards knocking him down. It was shoulder to chest. However, IIHF rules are very strict. The issue with the hit was Dean extended his arms making contact with the head of Cech.
After reviewing the play to determine if the hit was a match penalty for an illegal check to the head, they confirmed the call. A frustrated Dean got the gate and plenty of fans didn’t agree. I felt that it merited two minutes for roughing. But the IIHF is very different from the NHL. They go out of their way to protect players. I can understand why.
For a while, the Canadian penalty kill was getting the job done. After a couple of timely saves from Gaudreau, they got some clears and even looked to attack shorthanded. But as the Czech power play started to wind down, they struck twice 33 seconds apart.
First, Jiricek threw a backhand pass in front from behind the net that Chmelar got a piece of. He was able to stick with it batting in his own rebound to make it a three-goal lead at 28:14.
Then, on a nothing play started by Suchanek, Jakub Kos got the puck over to Matous Mensik. He surprised a napping Gaudreau with a weak shot that went short side through him to make it 5-2 with 11:13 to go in the second.
That was it for Gaudreau. He was lifted in favor of backup Thomas Milic. He played well in relief stopping all 10 shots. Gaudreau allowed five goals on 17 shots. It’s a good bet that Milic will be in net when Canada takes on Germany on Wednesday.
Although Czechia did a good job defending by getting sticks on pucks to keep the explosive Canada at bay, the hosts still created enough scoring chances to threaten.
In particular, Bedard was dangerous throughout. He tried every magic trick including a Michigan that was denied by a sharp Suchanek. Those came early on. He also put on some strong moves to get off shots. For the game, he led all skaters with 11. It speaks to how dynamic he is.
The Czechs had to kill off a couple of penalties. On one, Bedard had Othmann all set up with a no look backhand pass. But the Rangers prospect shot the puck back into a sliding Suchanek. He’d also have some bad luck later when he again was fed by Bedard, but hit the near goalpost. It was that kind of night for Othmann and his Canadian teammates.
When they weren’t narrowly missing, Suchanek was there to make the big saves. Especially in the first five minutes of the third period. Canada put an all out full court press. However, they were either denied or went wide.
Even though they controlled some of the third with more shots and opportunities, Canada never dominated. Instead, the Czechs were able to settle down and do a solid job back checking. They defended the inside extremely well and countered when possible.
It was a splendid effort. They gave up 38 shots. However, they also totaled 27 for the game. Proving this was no fluke. Even when Canada pulled Milic with over three minutes remaining, they never drew closer. A credit to how well Czechia played.
Canada also showed frustration by taking the last three penalties including tripping by Clarke in the offensive zone with 69 seconds left. That finished it off. The Czechs were happy to control the puck and pass it around as time wound down. Afterwards, they celebrated the well earned victory with winning goalie Suchanek.
Wright got Best Player for Canada with a goal and assist. As mentioned earlier, Suchanek deservedly was recognized as Best Player for Czechia. He was the difference along with a more disciplined team that excelled scoring three times at even strength to only once by Canada.
Canada has Tuesday off before they take on Germany tomorrow. Czechia doesn’t. They’ll take on Austria tonight. Considering how well they played combined with Sweden winning 11-0 over Austria, it’s a game Czechia will be favorite to win. We’ll see how that goes.
Earlier yesterday, USA used a three-goal third period to defeat Latvia 5-2 in Group B play at Moncton. They played before 4,927 spectators at Avenir Centre in New Brunswick.
It didn’t come easy. With Patriks Berzins doing all that he could in net, the returning Latvian goalie made a lot of good stops throughout the contest. He finished the game making 41 saves on 46 shots.
USA wasn’t at their best early. They weren’t able to forecheck consistently during a scoreless first period. Captain Luke Hughes (Devils) struggled turning over pucks and getting caught deep. He didn’t have a good day.
He still led American skaters in ice time with 19:08 over 24 shifts and scored his first goal of the tournament to put the finishing touches on a better third.
Trey Augustine started in net for USA. A ’23 Draft Eligible like Kaidan Mbereko who was the number one goalie in Edmonton last summer, he played well finishing with 15 saves on 17 shots. With a day between their second preliminary match against Switzerland, it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out.
Although they didn’t put any pucks past a sharp Berzins during the first, USA had some chances. Cutter Gauthier (Flyers) and Jimmy Snuggerud (Blues) came the closest. Both stood out with strong games. Gauthier had five shots while Snuggerud led all skaters with eight.
Following a tightly played scoreless period, Snuggerud opened the scoring 24 seconds into the second when he took a pass from Logan Cooley (Coyotes) and was able to sneak a rebound by Berzins for his first of the tournament. It was a greasy goal by a player who was around the Latvia net often.
Before they could relax, Anri Ravinskis evened it up 4:35 later. On a play where Hughes got caught stepping up, Latvia made a great counter in transition to score a pretty goal. The play started by Gustavs Ozolins (not to be confused with Ozolinsh) up to Ravinskis allowed him to work a give and go with Rainers Rullers with him passing back for a cutting Ravinskis who easily buried the puck into an open side to tie the score.
As the second moved on, USA began to pile up the shots. They’d out-shoot Latvia 17-2 at one point. Eventually, Sean Behrens took a back pass from Red Savage (Red Wings) and snapped a long one-timer through traffic by Berzins to give the Americans their second lead at 29:17. Dylan Duke added an assist on the scoring play.
But after failing to convert on the power play with Ozolins off for high-sticking, they again saw a resilient Latvia draw even. On only their second shot of the period, Niks Fenenko took a pass from Rullers (2 assists) and stepped in for a good wrist shot that beat a screened Augustine to tie it with 5:36 remaining in the second.
At that point, the partisan Canadian crowd began sensing upset. They were rooting for the underdog to pull it off against their biggest rival. It’s no secret that USA isn’t well received by Canadian fans. That has everything to do with the rivalry. It’s too bad they’re not in the same group for a second straight WJC. Hopefully, the big match-up will still happen next week.
Even as they continued to improve their attack, Berzins was there to shutdown USA who had to be frustrated. The game remained tied after two periods.
At that point, there were thoughts of the Czech upset in the quarterfinals last August. That ruined a previously undefeated preliminary round. The difference being is that was an elimination game. This wasn’t. The Czechs are also better than Latvia. Something Canada found out.
The third period was much better. Playing with a sense of urgency, USA never allowed the “Lat-via, Lat-via!!!”, chants to bother them. They would get the last three goals of the game in a dominant period.
On a misplay in the neutral zone, Jackson Blake and Behrens sent Chaz Lucius in on a counter. His backhand caught Berzins off his angle going far side to put USA in front at 41:57.
Less than five minutes later, it was Savage who rebounded home a Duke shot past Berzins short side to double the lead with 13:12 left. That gave an effective Savage a goal and a helper. He works hard. Duke picked up his second assist of the game.
A few minutes after they didn’t capitalize on a Ravinskis cross-checking minor, Charlie Stramel and Jack Peart moved the puck over to Hughes up top. He found enough room to take a wrist shot that went low off the far goalpost and in at 53:29 for his first. It wasn’t exactly a bomb. But an eerie looking goal that put the captain on the scoreboard.
That was it for the scoring. Although it wasn’t what you’d call a great performance, USA worked through to get the win in their first game. As we’ve already seen in one day, that first game can be tricky. They’ll take it and move on.
Best Players were Berzins for Latvia and Snuggerud for USA. Excellent choices. Each received a painted hockey stick during the presentation. A nice honor. That’s what makes this tournament special.
Day Two is underway. In a big game, Finland is tied at one with Slovakia. Sweden faces Germany this afternoon. Switzerland looks to go two for two when they battle Latvia. Czechia plays Austria tonight.