Canada, Russia meet in unpredictable semis matchup: 'That's the game you want to see'
TSN Hockey Reporter Mark Masters reports from the World Junior Hockey Championship. Team Canada held an off-ice workout on Monday inside the Edmonton bubble.
With captain Kirby Dach injured, Dylan Cozens and Bowen Byram have taken turns wearing the 'C' for Team Canada at the World Juniors and the pair of returning players have certainly led the way.
Tonight, they'll look to do it again in a semifinal showdown with rival Russia.
"We've definitely got a lot of history with them so everyone's pumped up and ready to go," Byram said.
"They're going to come out hungry tonight," said Cozens, who expects the Russians to have last year's gold-medal loss on their minds. "Both teams are going to be hungry, but they'll come out with an extra gear and we have to be ready to match that."
It was Cozens, who set the tone immediately for Canada in Saturday's quarterfinal win over the Czech Republic scoring the opening goal and assisting on Byram's goal later in the first period.
"He's a stud," said forward Peyton Krebs. "He's not a flashy guy, he just gets it done."
"We trust him," said goalie Devon Levi. "We know he's going to come up big every game."
Cozens is second in tournament scoring with 13 points and has been impressive in so many ways. What stands out the most to Byram?
"He's just dominating the game physically," the defenceman observed. "He's so good at protecting the puck, so fast and so strong. You see how tough it is to get the puck away from him."
"The biggest thing this off-season was just getting myself bigger and stronger to compete against NHL players," said Cozens, a Buffalo Sabres prospect. "I do feel real good out there. I feel strong. I do feel like I've got a lot stronger on the puck, stronger on my stick and in winning battles."
Cozens leads the team in points, but Byram leads the way in ice time logging 21:51 per game. Last year, no one on Team Canada was over 20 minutes per game.
"He's just so poised with the puck," said Cozens. "His ability to see the ice and make plays and hold onto the puck in scary situations is unbelievable ... He's been the best D in the tournament by far."
Byram is an outgoing guy, who likes to joke around, but he's altered his approach this year.
"He's still that same energy guy," said Cozens, "but I think he's brought more of a serious tone this year as a second-year guy and leader on this team. He's able to dial it in before games and make sure all the guys are dialed in."
Jamie Drysdale, Byram's defensive partner and another returning player, is picking up on the same thing.
"More of a leadership style and role this year that he's taken upon himself," Drysdale observed. "You really notice it both on the bench and in the locker room. He knows the line between when to joke around and have fun and when to dial in and he makes sure us as a team realizes that. He's a vocal guy and speaks his mind on what he sees and it's almost always the right thing."
Byram seems to understand the gravity of what he can accomplish here.
"I don't think there's too many guys that have won back-to-back gold medals so to be part of that group would be pretty cool, pretty humbling," he said, "but we have a lot of work ahead of us so that's what we're focusing on."
On Dec. 23 Canada faced Russia in a pre-tournament game coming out on top 1-0. That was an important experience, because it gave the players a first-hand look at Russia's new system under coach Igor Larionov.
"They play more skilled," said Cozens, "more puck management, less hunting us down and hitting us so it is a different team, different style, but we’re confident in our game plan and that we'll win this game."
Russia owns the best penalty kill (16/17) at the World Juniors and scored a shorthanded goal against Germany in the quarterfinals.
"They do stretch for breakaways sometimes," noted Cozens. "They try and score when they're on the PK. We got to be careful with that. We got to watch for that and watch for those guys blowing the zone."
Levi is locked in on game days.
"Honestly, we don't see too much of him before the game," said Byram. "I don't know where he goes, but I don't see him until he's on the ice so it’s funny."
"I don't think really too many guys talk to him,” said Cozens with a chuckle. "He's kind of on his own page a lot on game days. He's got his headphones on and gets really focused and dialed in and the way he's playing he can do whatever he wants."
Team Canada's starting goalie has an elaborate three-and-a-half hour pre-game routine, which includes visualization exercises. Then, during the game, the 19-year-old relies on breathing techniques to keep his composure as the pressure builds.
"It's not that complicated," he explained. "I'm just concentrating on my breath and concentrating on the puck so I don't have to focus on anything else ... I just stay in the moment and enjoy it and feel grounded and keep my focus."
Levi is so determined to maintain focus that he doesn't even go to the bench during commercial breaks.
Even after the buzzer sounds for an intermission, Levi doesn't let his guard down.
"He's got his music in and he's dialed in at his stall there," observed forward Dylan Holloway. "During intermissions he takes his top half off and puts Beats headphones on and stays dialed in at his stall."
Wheat Kings defenceman Braden Schneider billets with the Wallin family in Brandon.
"I was a young kid, just 15, when I got to Brandon and they made the transition so easy for me," he said. "They welcomed me with open arms and made me feel like I was at home. They're my family, pretty much. I'm so thankful I'm able to be a part of their lives."
The Wallins have twin sons and Schneider is close with both. He has formed a particularly special bond with Zander, who was born with cerebral palsy. Zander learned how to walk when he was three and a half, which wasn't something the family was sure would happen.
Zander has always been a huge hockey fan and badly wanted to skate, but could never experience that sensation. Until yesterday.
"I couldn't be more happy for him," said Schneider. "He's a special kid and he's overcome challenges his whole life. It doesn't surprise me that he's able to do that. It put a smile to my face. I can't wait to get back there and get on the ice with him."
"Zander was determined to learn how to skate before Braden came home from the tournament so that he could go skating with him," father Chad Wallin wrote in a Facebook post.
Zander had special skates made by Wheat Kings equipment manager Scott 'Scooter' Hlady.
"Given his limitations and mobility issues, we thought that it was a long shot to ever see him fulfil his dream," Wallin wrote. "Prior to the holidays, I had an idea to make some 'boot-like' bob skates. Scooter turned this vision into reality by manufacturing special skates just for Zander.“
"He's an inspiration to me every day," said Schneider. "He always overcomes the odds and it always puts a smile on my face seeing what he’s able to do."