Last night was a hockey night. Anytime you can get the marquee event at the World Junior Championships in a great gold medal match while there’s a good slate of NHL games, that’s about as good as it gets for the sport.
It didn’t disappoint. While the Rangers prepared for their game against
Laval Montreal up at Bell Centre, the puck dropped on an intriguing final played between tournament host Canada and the impressive Czechia up in Halifax.
On the heels of a wild bronze medal game won by USA 8-7 over unlucky Sweden in overtime on a hat trick goal from Chaz Lucius, tournament favorite Canada went up against Group A foe Czechia in a rematch. The same team that dealt them their only loss. It was 6-3.
Out of that defeat, they discovered that backup Thomas Milic was the goalie they’d lean on after he played well in relief of Ben Gaudreau. The undrafted 19-year old out of British Columbia was brilliant throughout the tournament by winning all six starts he made and posting a 1.76 GAA with a .932 save percentage.
Even though they pulled away from USA in the much hyped semifinal winning 6-2, it was much closer. Milic made 43 saves on 45 shots to really make a difference. He made big stops on Jimmy Snuggerud and stoned Lucius on a key breakaway when it was anyone’s game. After being overlooked twice, Milic should be selected in the 2023 NHL Draft. He gave Canada the clutch goaltending needed to succeed.
Czechia boasted their own great story in net. Tomas Suchanek was also undrafted the prior two years. The unheralded netminder was the only goalie to make every start in the tournament playing every minute. His clutch play helped Czechia upset Canada in their first meeting. He kept his team afloat in the stunning come from behind 2-1 overtime win over Sweden. He finished on the All Tournament Team posting a 1.52 GAA and a .934 save percentage.
Undoubtedly, it was the surprising revelations of both Milic and Suchanek that were instrumental in getting their teams to the gold medal match last night. Without their brilliant play, neither makes it. Even with Connor Bedard setting all kinds of records, Canada would’ve been cooked without Milic.
While much of the focus was on Bedard who entered the big game with a tournament best nine goals, 14 assists and 23 points, it was actually the strong supporting cast that got the job done to make Canada the first repeat winner since 2009.
It sure didn’t come easy. Czechia was an experienced team with a lot of character and resiliency. Like they had in their remarkable comeback win to stun Sweden, who must be heartbroken after how they lost the bronze medal to USA, the pesky Czechs again showed their steely determination in nearly shocking an overwhelming pro Canadian crowd at a raucous atmosphere in Halifax.
In a tightly contested first period, Canada used their dangerous power play to grab the lead. With key Czechia defender David Jiricek off for holding, Brennan Othmann and Brandt Clarke combined to set up Guenther for one of his lethal shots that beat Suchanek to make it 1-0.
Although Czechia would get a couple of chances, they were unable to beat Milic. He’d replaced Gaudreau in the 5-2 preliminary loss on Boxing Day. The Czechs did all their damage against Gaudreau, who was reduced to cheering on his teammates from the bench.
Following some strong saves from Suchanek who robbed Logan Stankoven and denied Joshua Roy shorthanded, Shane Wright made an impact with a highlight reel goal that a power forward can score.
Skating at center one on two, he gained the Czech zone and made a strong move cutting inside two defenders to get off a wicked backhand that beat Suchanek high glove inside the goalpost to give Canada a 2-0 lead at 24:35. An absolute beauty from a player who will benefit from playing the WJC. He was reassigned by the Kraken to Kingston of the OHL. He’s expected to be traded to a playoff contender.
Although the captain of Team Canada didn’t dominate like the younger and generational talent Connor Bedard, the ’22 fourth pick showed some why he was highly thought of. He centered the second line playing with best friend Othmann and Guenther. He definitely has the look of a two-way pivot capable of scoring at even strength and on the power play.
Wright finished with seven points (4-3-7) including the beautiful goal on his 19th birthday. Ironically, bestie Othmann turned 20 yesterday. They share a birthday. Too bad they won’t play together for the Rangers. That would’ve been a dynamic duo. You could see the chemistry they had together.
While Montreal can’t seem to figure out what to do with top pick Juraj Slafkovsky, Seattle has made the right decision with Wright. Big difference between a second-year expansion team and a puzzling Original Six franchise that needs better direction to become relevant again. My friend Anne wants them to keep losing so they can have a better chance at Bedard. Can you blame her?
Leading by two, Canada could’ve padded their lead with Jakub Brabenec off for a tacky interference call. Even TSN’s Gord Miller and Mike Johnson didn’t think much of the penalty. However, it was moot over a minute later when they got caught with too many men on a bad line change.
Although Czechia got a power play for 1:29 late in a period controlled more by the forecheck of Canada, they couldn’t do much with it. It wad the aggressive play of the Canadians on the penalty kill that created a shorthanded opportunity. But Suchanek was strong. He was unflappable all tournament. His team needed it in the first part of the third period.
As Canada methodically started to dictate the terms with their cycle game while defending well to protect the house, it really felt like they’d find a third goal and get Milic a shutout. He wasn’t under too much stress. He made timely saves and got plenty of help from his defense which included forwards coming back.
They did get chances to put it away. But Suchanek wouldn’t allow it. His biggest stop came on a Wright high try labeled for the upper portion of the net. He really was steady and controlled most of the rebounds.
Czechia also deserves credit for limiting Bedard. He found it more difficult to find time and space. The defense tandem of captain Stanislav Svozil and David Spacek matched up against the top Canadian scoring line of Bedard, Stankoven and Roy. Every time Bedard made a rush with the fans anticipating something, he was checked well and limited to the outside by a strong Czechia defense. He was held to three shots and without a point.
Bedard shined in a telling postgame interview by taking the spotlight off him and speaking about the team and the great experience.
As time became the enemy for the Czechs, they never panicked. On a great keep by Matyas Sapovaliv, he made a diagonal pass for an Eduard Sale point-blank shot that Milic denied. However, Jiri Kulich was right in front to put the rebound in for his seventh goal to make it 2-1 with 7:30 remaining. The Sabres prospect was terrific and played the hero in beating Sweden. He was named to the All Tournament Team.
Less than a minute later, the game was suddenly tied. On a Tomas Hamara shot pass, Jakub Kos redirected the puck past Milic to tie the score. Just like that, the Czechs had rallied with a pair of goals in 54 seconds to shock the crowd.
It was in line with how Czechia played. They had clearly been one of the best teams during the two weeks. Their experience helped. Having a top four blue line that features Jiricek, Jiri Tichacek, Svozil and Spacek, who looks like a steal by the Wild in the fifth round last year, they were a strong team that competed well. They defended better and back checked. They also forechecked as we saw on the consecutive goals that put Canada on the ropes.
There was a brief moment late in regulation where it looked like Czechia would pull it off. They were going for two wins against Canada. Something even past USA teams couldn’t accomplish. It’s hard to beat as polished a team as Canada twice in a short tournament.
With less than 15 seconds left in regulation, it nearly happened. They needed a gigantic pad save from Milic to even reach overtime. Czechia was that close.
Unlike past years, they now play three-on-three in sudden death until someone scores. No more shootout. So, had they needed a second 20-minute overtime, they would’ve played it until there was a hero. My only issue is that it should be at least four-on-four. Three-on-three is too wide open. Plus the resets are frustrating. Ask any NHL fan.
Unlike the OT they played versus Sweden where they couldn’t complete passes and were on their heels the first eight minutes with Suchanek bailing them out, Czechia went for it. They didn’t hold back.
It made for a more exciting three-on-three overtime. You had both sides looking to end it early. While Czechia did go back to reset for personnel changes, it was smoother. Canada did the same. Czechia nearly won it on one good chance. But Milic made a save. He finished with 24 stops on 26 shots.
Perhaps the biggest play was made by Brandt Clarke. He blocked two Czech shots which looked dangerous. Bedard also made a key defensive play. Even though he didn’t score, he still played well defensively.
It was Clarke who stopped a rush by Kulich at the blue line that led to the winning goal. After he shutdown the aggressive Kulich, it trapped two Czechs causing a two-on-one rush for Canada.
Guenther and Roy came down the ice with only one Czechia defender back. Finally, Roy feathered a perfect pass across in the wheelhouse of Guenther who scored by burying the one-timer upstairs against a helpless Suchanek, who could only lay down on the ice in pain at the unbelievable ending. Guenther scored his first even strength goal at 66:22 to play the ultimate hero for a joyous Canada, who mobbed him.
It was a great scene. The celebration was something to behold. If you love this tournament, that game gave you everything you wanted. The favorite ahead looking poised to repeat without any doubt. A resilient opponent who never gave up and stunned everyone to draw even. A dramatic overtime with a memorable conclusion. An exciting ending to a great WJC. Class exhibited by the winner who shook hands with the hard luck loser who managed a few smiles despite how close they were. Respect earned.
Unlike last summer when it was Kent Johnson who scored the golden goal to save Canada after they blew a two-goal lead in the third against Finland, this time it was Guenther. When asked about the gold medal winner, he sounded genuinely surprised. He didn’t even take his gloves off. The Coyotes rookie with three goals should form a good duo with USA top player Logan Cooley, who went 7-7-14 to finish second behind Bedard in scoring and be named to the All Tournament Team.
The crowd was so loud and great. Having the rescheduled tournament in a junior hockey town was way better than an NHL one like Edmonton. Fans filled the arenas and made lots of noise. There were chants and even songs that were sang. It looked like an awesome environment.
Kudos to both Halifax and Moncton for hosting following Russia losing the rights due to the war in Ukraine. It’s a shame that their kids are being punished for the irrational actions of a madman. They deserve to participate in the tournament. Similar sentiment echoed for Alexander Ovechkin, who’s being crucified by bitter reporters who are very judgmental on a complex situation they have no clue on. Ask Artemi Panarin about that after they forced him to take a leave of absence from the Rangers due to a false accusation.
I can’t imagine having family in Russia. It must be pretty scary and uncomfortable for players who play in the NHL. Maybe journalists should butt out. Stick to what they’re more familiar with than making wild assumptions on an all-time great who’ll go down as the greatest goal scorer ever. Ovechkin is up to 29 goals. He’s 37 and on pace for over 50 again. That’s ridiculous.
Regarding last night’s game up in Montreal, the Rangers had one objective. Come out with two points against a bad hockey team. Do it without any injuries. They were successful winning 4-1 over the Canadiens in a place that was once the House of Horrors. Not anymore.
The Habs have really struggled lately. Coached by Hall Of Famer Marty St. Louis, they don’t have much team defense, goaltending or scoring depth. If you can shutdown the top line of leading finisher Cole Caufield, captain Nick Suzuki and former Blackhawk first round pick Kirby Dach, you have a very good chance of winning.
Montreal skated without Brendan Gallagher and Mike Hoffman which made it even more difficult for them. They came off a long seven-game road trip in which they dropped the last five games in regulation to finish 1-5-1. Outscored 26-8 over the last four including a 9-2 drubbing against the Ovechkin Caps where the Great Eight recorded a hat trick and even posed for a picture with the Montreal Moms, they were no match yesterday for the Rangers.
With the gold medal match at intermission due to starting a half hour earlier, I watched a good chunk of the first period. It was a bore and snore fest. Absolutely nothing happened that was noteworthy on the ice. Even Joe Micheletti sarcastically remarked to Sam Rosen, “I’m not sure who’s keeping the crowd out of this game.”
At that point, the Habs had no shots through the first 12:52. It would extend to nearly 17 minutes. The only problem was the Rangers didn’t exactly play well either. Perhaps they were lulled to sleep too. The classic rivals combined for a paltry 10 shots with the Blueshirts ahead 6-4 in a blah period that had no hitting or penalties. Holy crap.
As I was locked in on the second period of Czechia versus Canada, Vitaly Kravtsov made a bad line change to get nabbed for a bench minor. As punishment, he served the minor for too many men. Remarkably, it actually resulted in the game’s first goal for the Rangers.
On a bad turnover by the Canadiens, they allowed public enemy Chris Kreider to get a clean breakaway from the center ice. He cut in and beat Jake Allen with a wrist shot stick side for his 18th unassisted at 7:43 of the second. It was a shorthanded goal. Kreider trails team leader Mika Zibanejad by one for the lead in goals.
While veteran backup Jaroslav Halak made a few saves en route to 17 on a light night facing his original team he once carried to the Eastern Conference Final, the Blueshirts went about their business methodically.
On a good shift by the second line, Kravtsov passed the puck up top for Braden Schneider. He then moved it down low for Artemi Panarin. With some room on the side, he went back up to Schneider for a wrist shot that beat Allen with Vincent Trocheck providing a screen directly in front.
Up by two, they looked for more and got it. On a rather simple play that was started by Jimmy Vesey, his wide shot off the boards cams right over to Ryan Lindgren. He then found an isolated Filip Chytil for a one-timer from the high slot that went high glove on Allen for his 10th at 13:27. That gave the Rangers two goals in 59 seconds to increase the lead to 3-0.
After two periods, the Habs had totaled 11 shots. Only a couple could be classified as scoring chances. Halak made timely stops on Joel Armia and Evgenii Dadonov. Jake Evans missed an open net late in the second.
Ahead by three, the only thing they wanted to do was not get too cautious. They maintained the three-goal lead for over half the period.
That included killing off a Panarin tripping minor. It was cut short by Kreider drawing a slash on rookie Arber Xhekaj with 27 seconds left on the Montreal man-advantage. After some four-on-four, the Rangers failed to capitalize on the power play.
Shortly after that, the Habs made a nice play in transition to finally break the Halak shutout. Evans got the puck up for a fast moving Xhekaj who gained the Rangers zone. He sent a shot towards the net that deflected right to Armia in front. He was able to put home his first on the play to cut it to two with 5:14 remaining.
Of course, it was the first of the season for Armia. Always a hard-working player who hustles, he hasn’t played as much under MSL. So, he was all smiles when he got his first goal in 27 games. He hadn’t scored since April 11, 2022 against Winnipeg. A former team he was dealt to from Buffalo in the Evander Kane deal. Yes. It was a while ago. Kane has since moved on from San Jose to Edmonton where he’s on LTIR.
With under three minutes left in the game, Armia took a cross-checking minor on Lindgren. The Canadiens had to pull Allen for a five-on-five to have any chance. Eventually, the Rangers took advantage when off a face-off in their zone, K’Andre Miller and Adam Fox combined to feed Chytil, who scored into an open net from the red line for his third goal in the last two games. He also scored a power play empty net goal to put away the home win over Carolina who lost to Nashville last night despite getting 67 shots on Juuse Saros in regulation. He made 64 saves. That’s insane.
Aside from Ovechkin getting his 29th this season to stay hot as he pursues Gretzky with the Capitals winning again 6-2 over lowly Columbus, everyone else that’s in the division race lost. The Devils fell again at home to the Blues 5-3 despite two more goals from the dazzling Jack Hughes. The Penguins lost 5-2 in Vegas to continue their Jekyll & Hyde season. The Islanders lost at Edmonton 4-2.
At this point, the Rangers find themselves tied with the Caps in points with 50. However, they’re third due to one less game played. Both teams trail the Devils by a point for second. New Jersey has developed this weird habit of losing at home and winning on the road. They’re 10-10-2 (10-12) at home while boasting a 14-2-1 record on the road.
None of that means anything. When the two Hudson rivals do battle for the third and absurdly last time tomorrow afternoon at 1 PM (genius schedule makers), the winner should be in second place in the Metro. The Devils only need one point to stay there. They’ve also played one fewer game (39) to the Rangers’ 40. The Devils have two more regulation wins (21-19). The most in the division. That’s the first tiebreaker.
The question is are the Devils going to be able to rebound from their recent lull. They’ve won three of their last 10 games. Fortunately, the Islanders and Pens are consistently inconsistent.
The Caps aren’t. They’ve somehow managed to win a lot over the past month. They’re still waiting for Tom Wilson to return. Nicklas Backstrom (hip resurfacing surgery) plans to return. He had the same surgery as tennis star Andy Murray. If it works, it could open some doors for other players who have bad hips. I highly recommend Emily Kaplan’s piece on Backstrom. It’s excellent.
While the Islanders are at 46 and the Pens remain at 44, can the Sabres make up ground? They had two games postponed due to the awful snowstorm that blanketed most of the Midwest and Northeast upstate.
Buffalo has been rolling thanks to the stellar play of first time All-Star Tage Thompson. He and Alex Tuch have formed a potent duo. They are scoring a lot along with Jeff Skinner and Norris candidate Rasmus Dahlin. If they add a defenseman or key forward to a good young nucleus, they’re a team to keep an eye on. The Sabres have 40 points in 36 games entering Saturday’s home game against the Wild.
With Detroit fading and Florida continuing to puzzle, the Senators could also sneak up. Alex DeBrincat is finally scoring. Brady Tkachuk, Tim Stutzle and Drake Batherson are all playing well. It’ll depend on the goalie. They’ve hung around and are still hopeful Josh Norris can return eventually. Anton Forsberg recently won two straight starts. Cam Talbot is the number one goalie.
At the moment, one can fairly assume the top three of the Bruins, Maple Leafs and Lightning will all represent the Atlantic Division. They remain the top three with Florida taking a big step back. Their season isn’t over. They boast enough star talent to get back in it. But it says here that Spencer Knight should get most of the starts over Sergei Bobrovsky.
The Rangers have tried to make Alexis Lafreniere feel better. Vincent Trocheck presenting him with the Broadway hat following a recent win was a nice gesture. The rumors that the Canucks are interested in the former 2020 number one pick don’t mean anything. They also asked for Braden Schneider last year in a package for J.T. Miller, who’s not taking all the losing well. Can you blame him?
I still feel it’s critical for the Rangers as an organization to figure out where Lafreniere fits best. He’s 21. Not 25. Don’t throw him away. Most reports are that they’re not considering a trade. Something I believe would be a big mistake. They haven’t traded Kravtsov and he’s coming around. You can see the confidence growing. Obviously, you don’t want him making mistakes like the line change everyone killed him for. It’s a learning moment.
Considering that the Predators dropped Eeli Tolvanen and he’s since put up points (2-1-3) in every game for the Kraken, that’s proof teams should remain patient with young players. They also won all three games since he joined them.
You never know how it’ll turn out. Chytil took time to develop into a reliable player. He’s in Year Five. At 23, it’s clicked. He has 11 goals and 10 assists for 21 points in 32 games. He needs four more goals to set a new career high and five more assists to do the same. The most points he’s had over a single season is 23. He did it twice at 19 and 20. Making $2.6 million ($2.3 million cap hit) in a contract year, he’s raised his value. It’ll be interesting to see what happened over the second half.
If he can score enough in the remaining 42 games, Kaapo Kakko can justify the $2.1 million salary he’s signed through ’23-24. He has nine goals and nine assists for 18 points in 40 games. It would be nice to see more consistent goal production from the improving 21-year old forward.
The Rangers have interesting decisions this summer to make on Chytil, Lafreniere and K’Andre Miller, who’s picked up his offensive play over the last month. Are any of the key restricted free agents worth long-term investments? It’ll depend on how they finish and the salary cap which isn’t increasing that much next season.
Igor Shesterkin was named to his first All-Star team yesterday. He should’ve made it last year. But the way it’s set up isn’t exactly great. Having a field of four teams playing three-on-three for a pool of money isn’t as appealing as the classic five-on-five format where it was either East versus West or North America vs World. That rewarded more deserving players.
There will always be something lacking from this street hockey style. The skills competition remains good. That’s the best part of All-Star Weekend. Ditto for the watered-down NBA where defense optional and the three-point shot have ruined the game.
It’s a miracle that Buffalo safety Damar Hamlin is alive. I think everyone who follows sports have been preoccupied with the freak accident that happened to Hamlin on Monday night during the Bills/Bengals game in Cincinnati.
I didn’t see it. It wasn’t even a hard tackle. But he took the brunt of the hit on Tee Higgins to the chest which resulted in him going into cardiac arrest after passing out on the field. It really sounded bad.
The EMT’s who performed CPR and used a defibrillator saved Hamlin’s life. They are to be commended on everything they did. It truly is a miracle. That Hamlin went from critical condition with 50 percent breathing capacity to now being able to talk to some of his Bills teammates is remarkable.
He even asked if they won the game. It was wisely stopped thanks to the coaches of both teams and players who realized this was much bigger than football. We’re talking about someone’s life.
Damar Hamlin is only 24. So many prayers and well wishes have come his way. They’ve now raised over $7 million on what once was a toy drive for children whose goal was $2,500. It’s amazing the progress he’s made so far.
Hopefully, things continue to improve. I’m sure there’s a long way to go. Never take what the people in the Healthcare medical field do for granted. They are true shining stars. Thank you to them.