For Team Canada, revenge is a dish best served gold
Czechia humbled Canada on Boxing Day.
"They celebrated like they won the gold medal," recalled winger Joshua Roy. "They were pretty cocky. We won’t forget."
Team Canada isn't just looking for a gold medal on Thursday. They are also out for revenge.
"Going off the ice after the game, we heard them cheering and that's just a little added motivation for us," said captain Shane Wright. "We hate losing, especially when a team is saying 'Wooooo!' in our faces like that. We want to make sure that doesn't happen again tonight. I want to make sure that doesn't happen again tonight. I want to make sure that we're the team that's going to be celebrating after."
The sting of that tournament-opening defeat remains fresh in the minds of the Canadian players. They now view it as a painful turning point.
"It's a gold-medal game, so there's more on the line than just getting back at them," said winger Dylan Guenther. "But it adds a little fire under you. They kind of embarrassed us that first game. It made us better as a team and we'll be better and ready for them tonight."
The crowd will also be ready.
"It will be awesome," said Czechia goalie Tomas Suchanek. "They are playing home. The fans don't really like us here. They are always cheering for someone else, but it will be fun to beat them [a] second time in the same tournament."
"We know it will be a different game than the group," warned captain Stanislav Svozil. "Canada wasn't that good. That will be different."
Czechia is the top seed in the World Junior bracket and will have the last-change advantage in the gold-medal game.
"They're a strong, physical team," said Wright. "They're well structured. They play the game the right way and they don't give you any inch. You have to earn every opportunity you get, every chance and scoring opportunity."
The banter between Regina Pats teammates Svozil and Connor Bedard started even before the gold-medal rematch was finalized. They spoke briefly after Czechia beat Sweden in their semifinal.
"I just said, 'Good luck. I want to play you in the finals. I want to beat you again,'" Svozil said with a smile.
"He was pretty fired up," Bedard said after Canada's win. "I told him I'll see him tomorrow night. I'm glad it ended up working out that way."
Svozil chirped Bedard every chance he got in the preliminary round game.
"There's going to be a lot of chirping between us," a grinning Bedard said, "but all in good fun."
Svozil knows Bedard better than anyone on Team Czechia, but even he doesn't know everything the 17-year-old phenom is capable of.
"I know his tricks, but I didn't know he will score that goal in overtime against Slovakia," Svozil said. "I thought he will shoot, and he didn't. That was great move."
Ben Gaudreau allowed five goals on 17 shots before being pulled on Boxing Day. Thomas Milic stopped all 10 shots he faced in relief and has been building momentum ever since.
Milic, who was twice passed over in the NHL draft, was named Canada's player of the game on Wednesday night. The crowd in Halifax chanted his name.
"That was incredible," he said. "It's definitely the best moment in my hockey career and maybe my life too. It's pretty special. Just a shout-out to my family as well. That's the last name."
Milic stopped 43 of 45 shots. What was he most proud of?
"Just how I stayed composed early on," the 19-year-old said. "It's not easy to give up two in the first period against a team like that when you know they like to take over games. I made a couple good saves after that and kept everyone even keel going into the next period. So, my mental toughness was good."
Milic backstopped the Seattle Thunderbirds to the WHL championship series last spring. He posted a .925 save percentage over 25 playoff games.
"It's just what I love," he said of pressure moments. "It's something I've always had in me from a young age. I love those high-pressure situations and as we progress through the tournament here it's just getting better and better."
Roy is carving out a similar storyline. He had two goals and two assists against the Americans.
"He was unreal," said Bedard. "He's one of the smartest players that I've got to play with. How he dominated that game and stepped up his game when it mattered most is incredible."
Roy scored in the gold-medal game in Edmonton in August.
"Last year was incredible during the summer and I just want to live it again," the Montreal Canadiens fifth rounder said.
Roy picked up eight goals and 23 points in 11 playoff games with Sherbrooke last season.
"I just like moments like that when it's against a good team," he said. "It's always nice to play those games and especially here with the crowd. It gives us momentum. I'm feeling great when those moments happen."
"There's not a lot of opportunities where he doesn't finish it off or make the right play around the net," observed defenceman Brandt Clarke.
Roy is also emerging as a key penalty killer in Halifax. He had the fans on their feet with a great shorthanded shift in the second period of the semifinal.
"I never really played PK before," he said. "I respect my role. We're all good players here, who can play offensive. Almost everybody on the team plays on the power play on their respective team and we need people to kill."
Assistant coach Stephane Julien, who is the bench boss in Sherbrooke where Roy plays, oversees the penalty kill here.
"It's easier for me because it's the same as in Sherbrooke so I know what it is," Roy said. "Just stay focused and respect the game plan."
When's the last time a country repeated as champions at the World Juniors?
"It was 2009, wasn't it?" Clarke said with a wide smile. "So, I was in the building for that. Hoping I can be in the building again."
Canada won a fifth straight title in Ottawa. Clarke attended every game, including the gold-medal showdown against Sweden.
"It was crazy," the Los Angeles Kings defenceman said. "I remember the electricity in the building. I remember being outside and driving away from the Canadian Tire Centre and everyone's honking their horns. Everyone has the Canadian flags out their windows and stuff like that. Those were, like, the first memories I have. It was the first realization that this is what I want to do in my life. It's kind of a full-circle moment now."
Wright turns 19 on Thursday.
"Everyone's wishing me Happy Birthday," he said with a smile.
Growing up, he'd always celebrate by watching the World Juniors.
"Now that I'm actually here playing, it's a little more special," he said. "To win a gold medal for your country is a special moment especially for me with what happened last December [with the COVID cancellation], so really looking forward to tonight. Really want to take advantage of tonight and enjoy the moment."
Wright has been held off the scoresheet in consecutive games and is still looking for his first even-strength goal of the tournament. Is he feeling due?
"Maybe a little bit," he said. "I'm doing a lot of things right, creating a lot of chances and playing the right way. Even if I don't contribute on the scoresheet, I can contribute in other ways. I would like to contribute offensively and get one on the scoresheet, but if I don't there are other ways I can impact the team."
Wright, Guenther and Brennan Othmann had a lot of success together at the 2021 under-18 World Championship but have yet to really get going as a line in Halifax.
"I don't think we had our best game yesterday," said Guenther. "The second half of our game was better, but there are areas for us to build on. It starts with the little things. It starts with the faceoffs and us being ready and getting the puck back and outworking the other team."
Wright, Othmann and Clarke played together in minor hockey with the Don Mills Flyers. They won the 2019 OHL Cup together and also helped Canada win gold at the under-18 event in 2021. Thursday may be their final game as teammates.
"Those guys have been with me every step of the way," said Wright. "Always been there for me. Tonight is maybe the last time we'll play together … it's special either way that all three of us are here after all we've been through together. We got to go out and make the most of tonight and enjoy every second of it."
Othmann is celebrating his 20th birthday on Thursday.
Canada won a pair of coach's challenges for goalie interference during the semifinal win. Video coach James Emery and assistant coach Alan Letang radioed down to assistant coach Brent Kisio on the bench to let the staff know the challenges would be successful.
"Brent was in my ear and ultimately it's my decision," said head coach Dennis Williams. "But when they're that confident and Brent's telling me they're 100 per cent confident, those are the guys I trust and go with it. They did a fantastic job of being able to read it that quickly and having confidence to make those calls. They know the rule book inside and out."
Canada would have been assessed a delay-of-game penalty in the event of an incorrect challenge.
"Credit to the guys up above," said Williams. "We always say it's a team game and those guys up top are just as important. For them to have the confidence to call down, that was two big swing moments."
Canada received a video message of support from Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby ahead of Wednesday's game against the United States.
"It's pretty cool," said Wright, who played against Crosby in the NHL this season. "Obviously, he's one of the greatest of all time and a Canadian legend as well in hockey. Pretty cool hearing the message from him and hearing that he's cheering us on and watching."
"Probably everyone's favourite player growing up in this room," said Guenther. "To hear from a guy like is special. He's been through it, too."
Detroit Red Wings general manager Steve Yzerman paid a visit to the team's dressing room to speak with the players ahead of the semifinal showdown.
The ice quality inside Scotiabank Centre hasn't been great, which has impacted Canada's approach.
"Keep things simple, especially in the neutral zone," Guenther stressed. "They're a good team. They'll be good in transition like the U.S. were last night. They were fast and neutral-zone turnovers are something that can hurt you, so it's just about managing the puck well and knowing when you have your opportunities to go. Sometimes you'll have to cut bait. That's another good team over there and when they're tight with their structure we'll have to cut bait and get in behind them and go to work on the forecheck."
The second intermission was extended by two minutes on Wednesday night to allow arena staff to work on the ice.