What are the keys for Canada to avoid a semi-final upset?
In each matchup of Thursday’s World Juniors semi-finals, one team holds a distinct historical advantage over its opponent.
And while Canada has mastered the Czech Republic and the United States has dominated Sweden in recent years, neither of the two North American clubs would be wise to overlook their European competition with a potential rematch of last year’s final – where the United States was victorious in a shootout – on the horizon.
Canada and the Czech Republic last did battle in the 2017 quarterfinals in Montreal where Canada fell behind early, but came back for a 5-3 victory. Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Mitchell Stephens led the way with a goal and two assists. Though the Czechs were competitive, success against Canada at the WJC has been, to be charitable, limited in recent years.
In their last 10 meetings at the tournament, Canada has gone 9-0-1 against the Czech Republic. Canada’s only loss in that frame came during the 2013 edition of the tournament in Malmo, Sweden when the Czechs were 5-4 winners in a shootout in a preliminary round game. Pittsburgh Penguins forward Dominik Simon scored the shootout winner.
Not only has success against Canada been hard to come by for the Czechs, but the program has also experienced a medal drought at the tournament. The back-to-back gold medals in 2000 and 2001 when the Czechs boasted the likes of Martin Havlat, Tomas Plekanec and Radim Vrbata feel like eons ago. The last time the Czechs were able to medal at a WJC was in 2005 when they claimed bronze in Grand Forks, N.D., with a 3-2 overtime win over the hosts. Thursday will be their first trip to the medal round since.
The Czechs head into the date with Canada as winners of three straight games, including Tuesday’s 4-3 shootout win over Finland. They’ve scored 15 goals over that stretch, including eight second-period markers. The Carolina Hurricanes’ 2017 first-round pick (12th overall), Martin Necas, leads the team in scoring with three goals and six helpers and is second in tournament scoring. The Czechs should realize, though, that taking penalties will be tempting fate. The Canadian power play is a lethal one, having scored 10 goals on their 19 occasions with the man advantage.
Though Canada heads into the semis as a heavy favourite, head coach Dominique Ducharme isn’t without his sources of worry. Canada’s first-period attack that was a hallmark in early games of the tournament has gone silent. Team Canada has outscored opponents 12-1 in the first period, but doesn’t have a goal in the opening frame over their last four games.St. Louis Blues' second-round pick (35th overall) in 2017, Jordan Kyrou, is Canada's top scorer with two goals and five assists.
Like the Czechs, history is not on the side of Sweden when it comes to their semis date with the host United States. Tomas Monten’s team has lost nine of its last 10 WJC games against the Americans. The last time the Swedes managed to beat the United States was in the 2016 preliminary round in Finland with a 1-0 win thanks to a goal from Alexander Nylander. But the United States had the last laugh, hammering the Swedes in the bronze-medal game, 8-3, led by Matthew Tkachuk’s two goals and an assist.
The Swedes will come in with confidence, though. Rasmus Dahlin and company are undefeated during the tournament and have struck first in all of their games. They will also be playing for their first opportunity for gold since 2014 when they lost in the final at home in Malmo to the Finns. Sweden has finished fourth in three straight WJCs. Lias Andersson, the seventh overall pick in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft by the New York Rangers, leads the Tre Kronor in scoring with five goals and two assists.
The host Americans head into their date with the Swedes winners of three straight, including a hard-fought contest with Russia in which the United States came out with a 5-3 victory. The hosts have scored 12 goals over those games, with five of them coming in the third period. Offensively, Buffalo Sabres’ first-round selection (seventh overall) in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, Casey Mittelstadt, leads the way for the United States and the entire WJC in scoring with four goals and six assists.
In the last 15 years, Canada and the United States have met in the knockout round of the World Juniors seven times, including three times in the gold-medal game (2004, 2010 and 2017) with the Americans victorious every time in the final.
For the United States to continue its gold-medal dominance over its northern neighbours or for Canada to claim its first WJC at the expense of the United States since 1997 in Switzerland, both teams must first take care of business on Thursday, with their European opposition more than happy for the fans in Buffalo to miss out on the game they want to close the tournament.