Semi-final preview: Canada vs. Czechia
by Lucas Aykroyd|27 MAY 2022
The Canadians defeated the Czechs 5-1 in the 2019 Worlds semi-final in Bratislava and hope to do it again on Saturday in Tampere. Pictured, from 2019, are Czechia's Michal Repik (#26) and Canada's Thomas Chabot (#72).
photo: Matt Zambonin / HHOF-IIHF Images
Here’s a strange paradox. When the Czechs earned a 4-1 quarter-final win over Germany on Thursday, they played a significantly more consistent game than Canada did in its dramatic 4-3 overtime win over Sweden.

And yet in Saturday’s first semi-final, the Canadians – the defending champions – are probable favourites to advance to the gold medal game for a third consecutive IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship. Canada fell 3-1 to Finland in 2019 in Bratislava and edged the Finns 3-2 in 2021 on Nick Paul’s overtime goal in Riga.

“It’s in our blood,” said Canadian forward Max Comtois, the lone returnee from the 2021 squad. “We got a lot of games in the past that we found ways to win. You can never count Canada out. We saw it last year and now we’re seeing it again. It’s just belief. We always believe that we can come back.”

This isn’t meant to diminish what coach Kari Jalonen and his troops have accomplished so far at the 2022 tournament. However, the overall construction of the Czech team is different, and a lot of things will have to go right for them to move on to their first final since the thrilling 2-1 upset versus Russia under coach Vladimir Ruzicka in 2010 in Cologne.

Canada – the only team from Helsinki’s Group A to make the final four – has outscored its semi-final opponents 38-23 to this point and has four lines that can score. Meanwhile, the Czechs are extremely reliant on their top line, which features tournament scoring leader Roman Cervenka (4+10=14) with David Krejci (2+8=10) and David Pastrnak (4+3=7 in five games). That line accounted for the first three goals and eight points in total versus Germany. The only other significant offensive contributor has been youngster Matej Blumel (4+4=8).

Just as crucially, the Czechs lean heavily on their power play, which sits at a Worlds-leading 38.1 percent conversion rate (8-for-21), compared to Canada’s 32 percent (8-for-25). Every non-empty net goal Czechia got on Germany was with the man advantage.

In Saturday’s semi-final, it’ll be important for the Canadians to stay out of the box as much as possible. They took five minors versus Sweden and killed them all off, including a 5-on-3 in the first period. But overall, Canada’s PK has been relatively mediocre at 79.4 percent (7 goals allowed on 34 disadvantages). So that could provide an opportunity for Czechia to exploit.

After eliminating Germany, Cervenka expressed confidence in Czechia’s chances: “I really believe we are hungry. We want to be ready. We have a little bit of time to prepare and rest. It doesn't matter who we face. We'll be fine.”

Krejci, at 36, may not be quite as lethal a playmaker as when he led the 2011 and 2013 NHL playoffs in scoring with the Boston Bruins. However, the HC Olomouc veteran has showed here that he’d still be eminently capable of playing in the NHL if he so chose, and his former Boston teammate Pastrnak isn’t far removed from his 2020 Rocket Richard Trophy.

In the “game within the game,” however, what might offset their magical chemistry with Cervenka is the familiarity of Team Canada head coach Claude Julien with his old Beantown boys. Expect Julien to do everything he can to shut down the Krejci line. It could be going strength on strength – remember what Jonathan Toews, Rick Nash and Mike Richards did to Russia’s top line of Alexander Ovechkin, Yevgeni Malkin and Alexander Syomin in Canada’s 7-3 quarter-final win at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Or it could be throwing a designated checking line out there. It’ll be intriguing to track.

In all situations, Canada will aim to limit the top Czech trio’s time and space and take away the cross-ice passes they’ve used to such deadly effect.

At 5-on-5, the Canadians should have the edge in driving play. If Czech starter Karel Vejmelka (1.44 GAA, 93.3 save percentage) doesn’t keep up the elite performance he’s delivered so far, it will be tough for his team to advance. (Perhaps his teammate with the Arizona Coyotes, defenceman Dyson Mayo, will dispense some tips on how Canada can beat Vejmelka.)

The top Canadian line of Pierre-Luc Dubois (7+5=12), Drake Batherson (3+8=11), and Dylan Cozens (4+5=9) is capable of outscoring Krejci’s line on the right day. Julien favoured this unit in the comeback against Sweden, with the 21-year-old Cozens leading all Canadian forwards in ice time there (22:24).

This team’s most accomplished NHL playmaker is Matt Barzal, who is technically the second-line centre. That’s quite a luxury to have. The New York Islanders ace set up Batherson beautifully for the one-timer that eliminated Tre Kronor on Thursday.

On defence, the Czechs can point to the 2018 Stanley Cup pedigree of Michal Kempny with the Washington Capitals, but Filip Hronek, named Best Defenceman at the 2019 Worlds with 11 points), has been limited to one assist in 2022.

Overall, the Canadian blue line is more effectively physical and offensively productive, from the minute-munching and relentless skating of captain Thomas Chabot to the contributions of New Jersey Devils teammates Damon Severson and Ryan Graves, who have seven points apiece.

Canada’s goaltending hasn’t been spectacular in Finland, but it’s gotten the job done to this point. Since Logan Thompson allowed five goals on 26 shots in the 6-3 loss to Switzerland, Chris Driedger – Philipp Grubauer’s backup with the Seattle Kraken – has carried the load with three straight wins. Posting a 2.02 GAA and 89.1 save percentage through four games, Driedger has been well-defended. He’s faced just 74 shots, the lowest total among all tournament goalies who have played at least four games. Thus, it’ll be worth monitoring how he holds up if the Czechs put more rubber on net.

The Czechs cannot make the same mistake as Sweden did: sitting back and defending without any semblance of a counterattack if they get the lead. The indomitable Canadian will to win spoiled Swedish coach Johan Garpenlov’s hopes of redemption after Tre Kronor’s disastrous ninth-place finish in Riga. Like Gerard Gallant’s team last year, which ousted the ROC squad with a thrilling 2-1 overtime win in Riga, Julien’s team can carry forward the momentum from their own sudden-death triumph.

This year’s Canadian roster is not on par with the undefeated powerhouses of 2007 (Rick Nash, Shane Doan, Eric Staal) and 2015 (Sidney Crosby, Nathan MacKinnon, Taylor Hall). Nonetheless, it looks to be coming together at the right time.

In the golden age of Czech hockey around the turn of the 21st century, the Czechs often found ways to beat Canada. Great goaltending was one key, whether it was goalie Dominik Hasek’s brilliance in the 2-1 semi-final shootout upset at the 1998 Nagano Olympics or Tomas Vokoun shutting the door in the 3-0 gold medal win at the 2005 Worlds in Vienna.

Canada, of course, enjoyed its own triumphs in this era, such as the 8-4 semi-final romp at the 2003 Worlds in Helsinki propelled by Dany Heatley’s hat trick and the 4-3 sudden-death win on Vincent Lecavalier’s  goal in the 2004 World Cup of Hockey in Toronto.

Yet of late, the tide has shifted firmly in Canada’s favour. The Canadians have won six straight Worlds games versus the Czechs, including a 5-1 semi-final victory in their last meeting in 2019 in Bratislava. And even without NHL participation, Canada beat the Czechs 6-4 in their last Olympic meeting, the 2018 bronze medal game in PyeongChang. A Czech semi-final win at Nokia Arena on Sunday would qualify as a bit of an upset.

“I’ve got a gold medal from the [World Juniors], so I know that feeling of winning,” said Batherson. “A lot of us here have done that, so we want that feeling back, and we’ll do anything we can.