Ever since the late 1940s, Czechs and Canadians have often faced each other for big games at the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championships. In the playoff era dating back to 1992, the teams have met nine times in knock-out games with the Czechs winning six of them, including the finals in 1996 and 2005, both in Vienna, Austria, which is just 80 km from Bratislava.
The last time these two teams met in a knockout game was also a semi-final, in Prague in 2015. The Canadians won that game 2-0 en route to a perfect 10-0 finish and the gold medal. The Canadians had a stacked roster that year that included Sidney Crosby, Taylor Hall, Tyler Seguin, Matt Duchene, Brent Burns and one player who is playing this year, forward Sean Courturier. The Czechs, meanwhile, had tournament MVP Jaromir Jagr in their lineup along with four returning players from four years ago – Jakub Voracek, Jan Kolar, Jan Kovar and Dominik Simon. The Czechs were at home that game and they’ll almost be at home this game. As it has been all tournament, it will be a partisan pro-Czech crowd at Ondrej Napela Arena in Bratislava.
“The crowd has been amazing all tournament,” said Czech defenceman Filip Hronek. “Our fans have helped us so much. It’s a bit like playing at home.”
On facing Canada, Hronek grinned and said: “We’ll see. We can’t choose who we play, but when you get to the semi-finals, every team is good so I don’t think it matters. We just have to be ready to play.”
Coincidentally, both of these teams outscored their group-stage opponents by 25 goals – Canada was 36-11 in Group A and the Czechs 39-14 in Group B. After Sweden’s 41 goals scored, the Czechs ranked second and the Canadians were tied for third with Russia, so these teams can both score goals.
Special teams could be interesting. While the Canadians have the tournament’s highest-ranked power play at 50%, their penalty killing ranks 11th at 75% after giving up two power-play goals to Switzerland in the quarter-finals. The Czechs, meanwhile, are 20.68% on the power play, which ranks them 10th, but their PK is much better at a third-ranked 84.38%. The Czechs have taken more minor penalties than any other team in the tournament (43), so staying out of the box will be key for them.
Canada topped Group A with 18 points. The Canadians opened with a 3-1 loss to Finland but have since won eight games in a row, including Thursday’s dramatic quarter-final win over Switzerland, in which they tied the game with less than a second remaining in the third period and won it in overtime. This team has had a flare for the dramatics – they also beat host Slovakia 6-5 on a late power-play goal with 1.8 seconds to play in the group stage.
Up front, Anthony Mantha and Mark Stone (each 7+5=12) lead the team in both goals and points. Mantha sat out the quarter-final with a suspension, but will be back for the semis. Stone certainly did play, figuring in on all three Canadian goals and netting the overtime winner. Other productive Canadian forwards have been captain Kyle Turris, Jonathan Marchessault (both 3+6=9) and Pierre-Luc Dubois (2+4=6 in 6 games).
“We have a chance to win a gold medal and that’s all you can ask for,” Stone said after Thursday’s win. “We’re looking forward to Saturday and giving ourselves a chance. It’s going to be good, we’re going to relax on the train over, probably enjoy a few laughs about tonight, how tough the game was and how we tied the game but we couldn’t be more excited to get there and try to win.”
One thing the Czechs will have to watch for is the Canadian defence joining the attack. Every Canadian d-man who has played regularly has scored a goal, with Shea Theodore, Damon Severson and Thomas Chabot all recording 6 points so far (all 1+5). Chabot and Darnell Nurse are the team’s two workhorses on the back end, each averaging over 20 minutes per game.
“What’s there to say? A very strong team full of great players,” Czech forward Kovar said of the Canadian lineup. “We have to get ready for the next game. We’re not satisfied with the way we played [against Germany]. We have to be better this weekend.”
Like the Canadians, the Czechs have only lost once so far – 3-0 to Russia in their third group-stage game. But other than getting shut out that game, they have scored a lot of goals. The Germans did a good job of keeping their big guns at bay for two periods but they exploded in the third with four goals to win 5-1.
For the Czechs, everything starts with Voracek, their leader. He had a big game against Switzerland to finish the group stage and secure second place, and then scored the winning goal early in the third period against Germany. His 16 points (4+12) leads the team and is tied for second overall. Linemate Michal Frolik is tied for the tournament lead in goals with 7 and has 14 points, while Dominik Simon (4+8=12) and Dominik Kubalik (5+6=11) have produced as well. Kovar has 9 points, including a big three-point effort against the Germans.
While their defensive unit is maybe not as collectively powerful as the Canadians’, Filip Hronek has had a heck of a tournament with 11 points (3+8), which leads all defencemen, and Radko Gudas is a player that the Canadians will have to be aware of when crossing the blueline.
“We’ve not seen the Czechs yet because they were in the other pool,” said Severson. “But we played against Germany and they were a good team as well. We’re not really concerned who we play right now. We just have to prepare for them and try to win one more game so we can go for that gold medal. That’s our focus.”
In goal, the matchup is expected to be Matt Murray against Patrik Bartosak, both of whom having played in five of their teams’ eight games so far. Bartosak has been ever-so-slightly busier with three more minutes and 20 more shots against, but their statistics are very similar – Murray’s 92.00 save percentage to Bartosak’s 91.72. While there doesn’t seem to be an obvious advantage in goal, Murray, 24, is a Stanley Cup champion while Bartosak, 26. is playing in his first big tournament. It remains to be seen if experience is a factor there.
“We hope our goalie plays a great game because we’ll all have to play our best game so far,” Gudas figures. “They’re a great team. They usually get four lines that are dangerous. They play a full 60 minutes. They scored twice in the last second of the game. We're going to have to be aware of all four lines, like we did today with [Germany's] top line, and hope for the best.”