This. Is. It.
by Andrew Podnieks|05 JAN 2023
Czechia went hard to the net and won the first meeting against Canada, 5-2. Tonight, the teams play for gold.
photo: Matt Zambonin / IIHF
No messing around now. No lacrosse, no hot-dogging. No kidding. It’s the gold-medal game between the two best teams in the tournament, and at the end of the night there will be tears of joy... and tears of grief.

The playoff format was introduced to the World Juniors in 1996, and Canada is now playing in the championship game for the 19th time in 28 tournaments. The Czechs are here for just the third time. In 24 games between the two nations, Canada has won 20, tied two, and lost two. Ouch.

But that head-to-head history has one major asterisk. One of those losses came just a week ago, a game that is fresh in the minds of players from both sides. The Czechs know they can win; Canada wants revenge. One thing is abundantly clear, though. Both teams are much better today than they were last week. 

Goals, goals, goals. These are the two highest-scoring teams in the tournament. Canada has 39 goals and Czechia 35. And in the blue ice, it will be the battle of the Tommys. Tomas Suchanek has allowed only eight goals and has played every minute of the tournament for Czechia, which translates to an impeccable 1.30 GAA. Thomas Milic has also allowed eight since taking over for Benjamin Gaudreau and boasts a 1.75 GAA. Both have been among the best players on their respective teams. 

Canada’s greatest asset is also potentially its greatest liability. Connor Bedard will be named tournament MVP at the end of the night – of this there can be no doubt – but his dominance has also meant the players around him haven’t been contributing. Bedard has 23 points and leads the tourney in goals, nine, and assists, 14, but that means he’s been involved in 59 per cent of the team’s offence. Can this be a sustainable model for one more game? The Czechs must surely feel if they can limit number 16, they can win. And coach Dennis Williams would dearly love some offence from other parts of the roster.

Czechia has spread out its scoring far more evenly. Jiri Kulich, Gabriel Szturc, David Spacek, and Stanislav Svozil all have eight points, and this sharing of the wealth has put the team in a good position to score at any time.

Offence from the defence is another factor to consider. The Czechs have 11 goals and 31 points from the blue line while Canada has six goals and 23 points from its back end. 

But of all the stats that might decide the game tonight, power play numbers might be the most revelatory. Canada leads with a whopping 13 goals with the extra skater, fully one-third of their tournament total, while the Czechs have only five. Just as Czechia might be thinking contain Bedard and win, they must also know if they take penalties – and allow Bedard to quarterback their lethal PP – it’s game over.

On the flip side, Czechia has been brilliant where Canada has been average, and that’s on the penalty kill. Czechia has allowed just one power-play goal against on 19 short-handed situations, while Canada has allowed five on 25 chances against. So, Canada is the more penalized team, and the Czechs have proved more adept at killing off their penalties. Again, strength against opposite strength.

Another factor that has gone under-reported but has been huge in many games is faceoff wins. Many a goal has resulted from control off the draw in the offensive end, and each team has a specialist. Canada’s Logan Stankoven leads all players with a success rate of 67.9 per cent, but not far behind is Matyas Sapovaliv at 64.1 per cent. Watch for these two to be out there for key draws.

The Czechs have scored many goals by going hard to the net, and there is no reason to believe they won’t continue to make this their modus operandi. Canada is the more physical team, using their size and home-ice emotion to get pucks on goal. Different styles, same result. The best offences will be going up against the best goalies, and when this happens the defensive side usually wins, so the game is more likely to be low-scoring than high.

The crowd has been against Czechia all tournament, since they beat Canada, and, of course, the fans will be all-in for Canada regardless. The atmosphere will be wild, and this has all the markings of a classic in the making. 

Let’s drop the puck and go!