Julien Gauthier scored twice in the third period to lift Canada to a 5-3 quarter-final win over the Czech Republic and set up a showdown with unbeaten Sweden.
It wasn’t a picture-perfect performance for the hosts, but it was a big relief to make the final four.
“In the first period we were panicking a little bit, but in the end I think it’s a big win for us,” said Gauthier, whose squad trailed 1-0 after 20 minutes despite an 11-4 edge in shots.
Canada, with five returning players from last year’s 6-5 quarter-final loss to eventual champion Finland, was hungry to avoid a second consecutive disappointment. The Canadians, who last won gold in Toronto in 2015, also failed to medal in 2013 and 2014.
“It’s obviously better than last year,” said captain Dylan Strome. “It feels good to be on the winning side of the quarter-finals. Obviously you’re not satisfied yet, but I think it’s a good step.”
The last time Canada faced Sweden in the World Junior playoffs was the 2009 gold medal game in Ottawa, a 5-1 Canadian victory. Sweden won the last two meetings, 6-5 in a shootout on 31 December, 2010, and 5-2 on 31 December, 2015.
“They’re a good team, and we’re going to have to be aware on all sides of the puck,” Strome said of the Swedes. “In the offensive zone, they can attack just as quickly as we can.”
Mitchell Stephens, who missed two games after injuring his ankle versus Latvia, was a force in the quarter-final with a goal and two assists. Blake Speers and Thomas Chabot added a goal and assist apiece, and Anthony Cirelli had two assists.
“I think we can still be better,” said Canadian coach Dominique Ducharme. “We were good at times but we need to be better over 60 minutes.”
David Kase, Tomas Soustal, and Simon Stransky scored for the Czechs.
“If we play Canada ten times we can maybe beat them once or twice,” said Czech coach Jakub Petr.
Connor Ingram, who was originally projected to back up Carter Hart at this tournament, made his second straight start in net for Canada. The 19-year-old Kamloops Blazers goalie did enough to preserve the win. Canada outshot the Czechs 41-19, testing Czech netminder Jakub Skarek from every angle.
With the loss, the Czech Republic finishes sixth. It hasn’t won gold since back-to-back titles in 2000 and 2001. Its last medal was bronze in 2005 — also the last time it made the semi-finals.
Stransky reflected on the tournament: “We started pretty good against Finland. We won that game. I thought it was going to be good. But then we lost two games against Switzerland and Denmark in overtime. Then Sweden. The key game was against Denmark. It was just unlucky, but we’re going home now.”
Prior to this game, Canada had won eight of the last nine games against the Czechs. The Czechs, however, won the previous encounter, 5-4 in a shootout on 28 December, 2013.
Defenceman Kale Clague replaced Philippe Myers on Canada’s top pairing with Chabot. Myers suffered a concussion in the 3-1 New Year’s Eve loss to the Americans.
The game got off to a relatively cautious start. Canada was outshooting the Czechs 8-1 when defenceman Noah Juulsen took the game’s first penalty for delay of game midway through the first, putting the puck over the glass in his own end. However, Petr’s team didn’t get a shot on goal during the man advantage.
With 3:11 left in the first, the Czechs stunned the Bell Centre faithful by taking a 1-0 lead on a flukey play. Captain Filip Hronek’s shot from the side bounced off Adam Musil in front and then hit the referee standing to Ingram’s right. Kase pounced on the loose puck and golfed it into the open side.
“I’ve never seen one go straight to a guy,” said Ingram. “I’ve seen it go off a linesman for a breakaway or a 2-on-1 or something like that. But I’ve never seen it cause an open net like that before. That’s something new. It’s going to happen once in a blue moon, I guess.”
Canada tied it up at 3:45 of the second period when Stephens centered it from the corner to an unguarded Speers, who redirected it through Skarek’s legs for his first World Junior goal.
That got the home team and fans fired up, and Stephens made it 2-1 Canada on a set play at 7:27. Anthony Cirelli won a faceoff in the Czech end and the Saginaw Spirit forward one-timed it in before Skarek could move.
Of Stephens, Chabot said: “He’s a guy who’s always working his ass off on the ice. He’s always first on pucks, winning every battle. He’s also a good, fast player. We’re glad to have him back in the lineup.”
However, the Czechs drew even on their first shot of the middle frame at 8:53. Soustal got the puck past Jake Bean at the Czech blue line, burst down right wing and executed a toe drag around a sprawling Juulsen before zinging it past Ingram’s glove.
At 13:32, Chabot made it 3-2. He took a pass from Stephens and stepped in, stickhandling around a sprawling Radek Koblizek before whipping home a low stick-side wrister.
“He’s a fun guy to watch,” said Ingram of Chabot, who played one game for the Ottawa Senators this season. “He’s making himself a household name across Canada right now. It’s exciting to see. The guy’s got a ton of skill.”
At 3:18 of the third period, Gauthier, a 2015 first-round pick of the Carolina Hurricanes, gave Canada some breathing room at 4-2. Nicolas Roy centered it to Gauthier from behind the net and he surprised Skarek with a quick top-corner shot.
The Czechs had an answer at 5:54. Ingram made a pad save on Necas’s turn-around shot, but Stransky deftly backhanded the rebound in. But Gauthier restored Canada’s two-goal edge just 43 seconds later, banging in the rebound from Clague’s long shot.
“Especially in the second and third, we were hemming them in their D zone,” said Stephens. “We had a lot of energy.”
In the final minute, Petr pulled his goalie and called his timeout, but it was too late for a Czech comeback. The three best Czech players of the tournament were named post-game: Filip Hronek, Michael Spacek, and David Kase.
Canada has won the World Juniors five out of the 11 times it has hosted (1991, 1995, 2006, 2009, 2015).