Can Czechs pull off another upset?
by Lucas Aykroyd|19 AUG 2022
When the Czechs faced host Canada in the preliminary round, they lost 5-1. Will they turn the tables in Friday's semi-final rematch? Pictured are Czechia's Jakub Kos (#15, left) and Canada's Mason McTavish (#23, right).
photo: Chris Tanouye / HHOF-IIHF Images
At the 2022 World Juniors, the Czechs have gone from suffering the biggest group-stage upset with a 5-2 loss to Latvia to pulling off the biggest quarter-final upset with a 4-2 win over the Americans.

Next, in Friday’s first semi-final at Rogers Place (14:00 local time), coach Radim Rulik’s team likely confronts an even bigger challenge in host Canada. The Czechs earlier fell 5-1 to Canada in Group A play.

Certainly, dethroning the defending champion U.S. was an amazing achievement – especially after Czechia had lost 13 of its 14 previous quarter-finals (2018 being the exception). But the hungry Canadians, silver medalists here in Edmonton in 2021, have dominated in just about every department under coach Dave Cameron as they look to get back on top of the world.

“Every day we’ve been getting better, but our best is still ahead,” said forward Tyson Foerster, who had a goal and an assist in Canada’s 6-3 quarter-final win over Switzerland.

“I think Canada are the best team in this tournament,” said top Czech defenceman David Jiricek. “So we just have to play like a team and have a good goalie like today and see what happens.”

Indeed, if the Czechs hope to end the golden dreams of a Canadian squad that has produced a World Junior-leading 33 goals in five games (versus Czechia’s 15), they’ll need another elite performance out of goalie Tomas Suchanek (92.1 save percentage, 3.02 GAA). Showing strong positional play and focus, the 19-year-old frustrated the U.S. with 28 saves on Wednesday.

“I would say [Suchanek] had a really good game,” said captain Jan Mysak, who scored the crucial 1-1 equalizer late in the first period of the quarter-final. “I’m really happy for him. So we're not done. So let's go! Let's go to the next day.”

With that said, while Mysak’s top line with Jiri Kulich and Matyas Sapovaliv shone with five points, the Czechs need to focus on slowing the Canadians down before they even get near Suchanek’s crease.

There’s no sense in trading chances with tournament scoring leader Mason McTavish (7+7=14) or Connor Bedard (3+4=7), who was blanked for the first time at these World Juniors versus Switzerland and will be raring to reassert himself as the consensus #1 overall pick in the 2023 NHL Draft.

The Czechs will look to clog up the neutral zone and take away opportunities off the rush from the likes of McTavish, Bedard, and Logan Stankoven, who set the pace with two goals and an assist versus the Swiss. The Kamloops Blazers star, named the CHL’s 2022 Player of the Year is also the top World Junior faceoff man right now (68.7 percent).
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Canada is very capable of playing a chip-and-chase game and going heavy on the forecheck. So quick puck retrievals and good first passes out of the zone will be critical for Jiricek, Stanislav Svozil, and their fellow Czech blueliners.

Olen Zellweger, Canada’s leading scorer on defence (2+5=7), was pleased with where his team was trending in the quarter-finals: “I thought we played pretty well. It’s the kind of game we can build off for the semi-finals. Our best hockey is yet to come. We like to play fast, play connected, defend well. We have to be committed to playing our game for the whole game.”

The Czechs will need to ramp up the pressure and cash in the chances they get versus Canadian starter Dylan Garand (91.7 save percentage, 2.00 GAA). Stankoven’s Kamloops teammate has looked sharp, but hasn’t faced more than 26 shots in any game (the 6-3 win over Switzerland).

Staying out of the penalty box in the semi-finals is also wise for the Czechs. Canada hasn’t drawn a ton of penalties in this tournament, but they’re 6-for-11 (54.5 percent), while the Czech penalty kill has surrendered six goals on 14 disadvantages. Don’t play with fire and you won’t get burned.

Bottom line: the Czechs didn’t fluke their way to victory against the Americans, but a ton of things will have to go their way for them to achieve a second straight shocker against the host nation.

“The longer the tournament goes, the better we’ve become and used to playing in the summer,” said Canada’s Nathan Gaucher. “We came here to win gold, so the next game is just a game on the road to our goal.”

Canada – with an all-time 18 gold medals to its credit – is unquestionably the semi-final favourite. The Czechs are dreaming of winning their first medal since capturing a bronze medal in North Dakota in 2005 with a roster featuring David Krejci and Roman Cervenka.

Regardless of how the Canada-Czechia semi-final plays out, one thing is for sure: for the 13th consecutive time, we will witness a different World Junior champion than the year before. No nation has repeated since Canada’s five-peat of 2005-09.