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Undrafted Milic stars as Canada's returns to WJC final


HALIFAX — Thomas Milic is the only player on Canada's roster passed over at the NHL draft.

An incredible performance Wednesday has his country one step from its 20th gold medal at the world junior hockey championship.

Milic was outstanding in making 43 saves as the tournament hosts fought back from an early 2-0 semifinal deficit to defeat the United States 6-2 in another emotional matchup between the bitter international rivals.

"Definitely the best moment of my hockey career and maybe my life," said the 19-year-old from Coquitlam, B.C. "Pretty special."

The netminder for the Western Hockey League's Seattle Thunderbirds wasn't picked at last summer's draft.

He also isn't focused on that as Canada preps for Thursday's championship game against Czechia, which beat Sweden 2-1 in the other semifinal.

"It's always in the back of my mind," Milic said of not being selected. "But it's not really something I think about too much now.

"It's just winning."

Joshua Roy had two goals, including one into the empty net, and two assists for Canada, while Connor Bedard, Logan Stankoven, Adam Fantilli and Brandt Clarke each scored and set up another.

Logan Cooley and Kenny Connors replied for the Americans, who will play the Swedes for bronze. Trey Augustine stopped 31 shots.

"Got away from our identity," said U.S. head coach Rand Pecknold. "Their goalie was the best player on the ice. He was excellent.

"That's part of hockey."

Canada, which advanced to face the Americans thanks to Bedard's incredible individual effort in a dramatic overtime victory against Slovakia in the quarterfinals, dropped a 5-2 decision to Czechia in an embarrassing opener.

"We definitely want some revenge," Fantilli said. "We're not happy about what happened earlier in the tournament."

Expected to go high at the 2023 NHL draft — but also overshadowed at the men's under-20 event by a breathtaking Bedard, the presumptive top pick in June and world junior scoring leader with 23 points in six games — Fantilli started the event on the second line, but was pushed to the fringes of the roster as the showcase progressed.

After the Canadians fought back to tie the score 2-2 early in the second, he scored his second goal of the event off a terrific pass from Zach Dean to ignite a red-clad Scotiabank Centre.

"Very, very happy to get my moment in that rivalry," Fantilli said. "More importantly, I'm really happy that we got that win."

Milic made a terrific stop on Jimmy Snuggerud off a 2-on-1 to keep Canada, which won its 19th gold at the pandemic-delayed summer tournament, in the driver's seat.

"He was unbelievable," Bedard said. "Without him, I don't know if we win."

The U.S. appeared to tie it at 6:22, but Jackson Blake's goal was overturned following a coach's challenge for goaltender interference.

Augustine then denied Dylan Guenther in alone at the other end, but Roy scored his fourth on a backhand at 12:20.

Olen Zellweger hit the post on a Canadian power play before Milic stopped Connors on a short-handed break.

"It's a great story," head coach Dennis Williams said of Milic. "He's battled his way through everything."

Rutger McGroarty looked to have made it 4-3 just 38 seconds into the third, but Canada once again correctly challenged for goaltender interference.

Milic made four huge saves on a U.S. power play that also included McGroarty chiming a shot off the post.

"I'm shocked he's not drafted yet," Bedard said of his goaltender.

"That's a mistake by all 32 teams that he's not in an organization at the moment," Clarke added. "He's resilient, just like everyone else in that dressing room. When he got his shot, he knew he'd run with it."

The Americans had their neighbours on the ropes as the period wore on, but Fantilli set up Clarke for his second at 9:45 for some much-needed breathing room.

Roy iced into the empty net on a U.S. power play with 3:15 remaining to send the Canadians to Thursday's final as fans chanted "We Want Gold" at Scotiabank Centre.

"The turnouts have been awesome," Fantilli said the crowds in Halifax. "The way they've been in the game has been awesome.

"They're right on top of you and it feels like they're in it with you."

Canada, which came in losers in five of its last six meetings with the U.S., including the finals at both the 2017 and 2021 tournaments, had a terrible start Wednesday.

Cooley, second in tournament scoring behind Bedard, broke the ice 1:19 in when he swept home a loose puck for his sixth.

The U.S. led 9-0 on the shot clock before Canada tested Augustine and came close when Luke Hughes hit the outside of Milic's post before going up 2-0 at 10:30 when Connors banged home a rebound for his second.

"We started playing after about 12 minutes," Williams said. "They came out and executed their game plan — lots of speed. They hemmed us in there quite a bit.

"Put us on our heels."

Bedard, who set five national or tournament records in the quarters, responded at 11:49 after the Canadians won an offensive zone draw and took a nice feed from Ethan Del Mastro in front to make it 2-1.

Stankoven got the hosts back on level terms 47 seconds into the second on a scramble.

Fantilli hit the post on a power play, but wouldn't be denied later in the period before Milic stopped a Chaz Lucius breakaway and Canada was off to the races.

"It's obviously awesome," Bedard, one of eight returning players from the summer, said of playing for a second consecutive world junior title. "But we didn't come here to make it to the finals.

"We came here to win the gold."

They'll get that shot Thursday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 4, 2023.


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