VANCOUVER — Canada is firing on all cylinders, attacking in waves and getting contributions from everyone. Even their 13th forward, who also happens to be their youngest player.
Alexis Lafrenière, who isn’t eligible for the NHL draft until 2020, burst out of Tim Hunter’s doghouse and onto the scoresheet with his first goal and first point of the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship during Saturday’s convincing 5-1 victory over the Czech Republic.
Lafrenière was the last of Canada’s 20 skaters to register a point in this tournament, scoring after being demoted and called out by his coach in the media for lackadaisical play during previous wins over Denmark and Switzerland.
Now he’s going in the right direction — along with everybody else — heading into a New Year’s Eve clash with Russia that will be a first-place showdown on Monday night if the Russians defeat Switzerland in Sunday’s lone Group A game (5 p.m. PT).
“We definitely bounced back a little bit and played harder today. The boys are pretty happy with the effort,” said defenceman Ty Smith, who was named Canada’s player of the game with two assists — both on power-play goals, including the point shot that Brett Leason redirected for what stood up as the winner. “We came out playing hard and got the first one again and the crowd was behind us, so we were feeling good and it just kept building from there.”
The Czechs, meanwhile, are firing blanks — especially their big guns. Filip Zadina is pointless through three games, Martin Necas has been limited to one assist and Martin Kaut has also been kept off the scoresheet in two straight contests. None of those three even had a quality chance against Canada and their continued struggles have been shocking to see after watching them light it up at last year’s tournament in Buffalo.
They were standouts there, with Necas tying for the points lead with 11 and Zadina tying for second in goals with seven in as many games, while Kaut had his coming-out party with a point-per-game performance to solidify his status as a first-round pick.
Now a year older, all with professional experience this season and each selected in the top 20 of the NHL draft, they were expected to carry the Czechs into medal contention here.
Scoring was supposed to be a strength, not a concern for the Czech Republic, but they only have four goals as a team through three games.
[miptheme_quote author=”” style=”text-center”]“I’m hoping that they will turn it around,” said Czech coach Vaclav Varada, when asked about his big three in particular. “We still have some games to play and, in a tournament like this, one day you’re down and the following day you can be up.”[/miptheme_quote]
That’s true, and the hope for the Czechs is to break out offensively against Denmark in their round-robin finale on Monday, then carry that success into the medal round — beginning with Wednesday’s quarterfinals.
It’s possible, don’t write them off just yet, but it’s going to be a tough road the rest of the way beyond Denmark now that the Czech Republic appears destined to finish third in Group A — meaning a quarterfinal matchup against the second seed from Group B, either the United States or Finland depending on their New Year’s Eve result.
The Czechs will take some lessons along with their lumps from the loss to Canada in front of 17,012 fans at Rogers Arena.
“We got slapped in the face today,” said Varada, who wasn’t able to push the right buttons from behind the bench to get his go-to guys going. “They were the home team, they had the last change. I tried to get them away from their top (defence) pairing, but it was difficult. They really played physical on them and made it tough for them to dominate.”
Smith had a hand in shutting down that trio.
“They’re great players obviously. A guy like Zadina had a lot of points here last year and he’s got a ton of skill, just like the other two, but it was a team effort and we did a good job at that,” said Smith. “Everyone who was out there, they were aware when those skilled guys were on the ice. We played them pretty hard and didn’t give them much.”
Didn’t give them so much as a sniff. And undisciplined penalties also did them in, with Kaut and Necas both serving 10-minute unsportsmanlike misconducts in addition to their minors that Canada capitalized on with man-advantage markers.
That amounted to a full period without two of their top-line forwards, which didn’t sit well with Varada as he was forced to tinker with his combinations for long stretches at even strength.
“The players have to be on the ice to decide the game and their sitting in the penalty box is not helping us,” said Varada.
Time to reunite Necas with Zadina?
Would it help if those three were playing together on a loaded-up line like Boston deploys in the NHL? Necas and Zadina were a dynamic duo in Buffalo but have been skating on separate lines for the most part in Vancouver, with undrafted 19-year-old Krystof Hrabik primarily flanking Necas and Kaut.
“We’ve moved the guys around, we played the second period and third period against Russia with those (big three) together, but we want to spread the scoring and not have just one line,” responded Varada, when posed with that exact question.
Without further prompting, Varada elaborated on why he’s been reluctant to go that route. In doing so, Varada offered his harshest criticism of these projected future NHL stars.
“If they play together, they need to play also in the defensive zone,” said Varada, a former NHL forward with 580 games of big-league experience. “And that’s where they’re not good enough to play in the NHL yet. That’s why they can’t play in the NHL because they’re not ready to battle every night in the defensive zone.
“They’re really good offensively, but they need to add to their quality and it’s not there every night right now.”
Hunter, on the other hand, is getting those 200-foot efforts from the likes of captain Max Comtois and MacKenzie Entwistle, who both scored again in Saturday’s triumph while continuing to provide a physical presence.
“To win games, you have to get scoring through the lineup because you’re number-one line and you’re number-two line aren’t going to score every night,” said Hunter. “You need depth, you need scoring spread out through the lineup, and we had it tonight.”
That was the game story, in a nutshell, and now here’s a detailed recap of the Group A action from Saturday:
Canada 5, Czech Republic 1
The Czechs seemed to set the pace in the opening five minutes — perhaps a carryover effect from already facing a higher-calibre opponent in Russia the previous night — but Canadian goaltender Michael DiPietro was up to the challenge in denying Jakub Lauko and Zadina on decent opportunities.
Once Canada got up to speed, Comtois got the hosts on the board with his team-leading fifth goal at 6:03 — getting a fortunate bounce off Kaut’s backside in the crease after getting off a quick shot from a nifty feed by Owen Tippett, who passed against the grain as he was cutting behind the net.
— TSN (@TSN_Sports) December 30, 2018
The Czechs responded just 37 seconds later, capitalizing on an odd-man rush as Ondrej Muchala converted a 2-on-1 pass from Jan Jenik for his first goal of the tournament.
That momentum shift was short-lived as Kaut committed a costly penalty by boarding Canadian defenceman Evan Bouchard in the offensive zone — a blatant infraction, yet Kaut tacked on a 10-minute misconduct for disputing the call.
On the ensuing power play, Leason knocked down Smith’s high shot with the puck dropping through Jiri Patera’s pads to restore Canada’s lead at 11:32. That was an all-WHL goal of sorts, with Leason a forward from the Prince Albert Raiders, Smith a defenceman from the Spokane Chiefs, and Patera an import goaltender for the Brandon Wheat Kings. It was also Leason’s third tally of the tourney.
Then, at 16:39, Lafrenière fired a one-timer from the slot past Patera on a set-up from Jack Studnicka to make it 3-1 at the first intermission.
— TSN (@TSN_Sports) December 30, 2018
The opening 20 minutes largely went Canada’s way — also leading on the shot-clock 14-8 — and Comtois even managed to get under the skin of Necas as the two captains tangled in front of the benches to warrant coincidental minors.
DiPietro came up big again in the early stages of the second period, stoning Machala when he got behind the defence and then Jenik from the doorstep on that rebound chance.
— TSN (@TSN_Sports) December 30, 2018
Machala and Jenik — fourth-liners on paper, along with centre Jan Hladonik — were the Czechs’ most dangerous players on this night after not being overly noticeable in their first two games of the tournament. They provided a spark on Saturday and Jenik got rewarded with player-of-the-game honours for their country.
Entwistle, who has been exceeding expectations and earning a bigger role for Canada as the tournament progresses, got the lone goal of the second period — making it 4-1 at 14:41 by snapping a shot past Patera’s glove after receiving a nice pass from Joe Veleno. Entwistle, with his second, has now scored in consecutive games after starting out as the 13th forward.
The Czech Republic made a goaltending change to start the third period, with Jakub Skarek replacing Patera, who allowed four goals on 20 shots. Skarek was tested almost immediately and came across to rob Morgan Frost on a point-blank chance.
However, Frost delivered a dagger on his next opportunity — burying a feed from Nick Suzuki into a gaping net on a power play at 9:01 as Skarek failed to track that cross-ice pass. Frost’s fourth goal of the tournament — following his hat trick against Denmark in the Boxing Day opener — put the score out of reach at 5-1 and came just eight seconds after Necas was called for checking from behind, which was accompanied by another 10-minute misconduct as the Czechs’ frustrations continued to show.
Nick Suzuki (@AttackOHL) connects with Morgan Frost (@OHLHoundPower) who finds the back of the net for his 4th goal of the tournament to give #TeamCanada a 5-1 lead! 🇨🇦@HC_WJC #WorldJuniors #CZEvsCAN pic.twitter.com/syTRnRsG9B
— TSN (@TSN_Sports) December 30, 2018
DiPietro shut the door from there, stopping all 10 shots he faced in the third period and making 23 saves in total. DiPietro has only allowed one goal through two starts, with Canada outscoring the opposition 22-3 through three games.
Switzerland 4, Denmark 0
Saturday’s early game saw Switzerland punch their ticket to the medal round — to Wednesday’s quarterfinals — thanks to Philipp Kurashev’s hat trick.
Kurashev, who also scored a pair of power-play goals in Thursday’s 3-2 loss to Canada, picked up where he left off with another man-advantage marker to open the scoring midway through the first period against Denmark. Kurashev netted his second in the final minute of the opening frame to make it 2-0 and bookended the scoring with the 4-0 goal early in the third period.
— TSN (@TSN_Sports) December 29, 2018
A third-year import for the QMJHL’s Quebec Remparts and a fourth-round pick of the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks, Kurashev has been the straw stirring the Swiss offence in this showcase — now tied with Comtois for the tournament lead in goals with five. For the record, I was fairly high on Kurashev during his draft year — mocking him at 62nd overall in the second round for 2018, but he fell to 120th overall.
Switzerland’s other goal came courtesy of Simon Le Coultre, extending the lead to 3-0 in the second period, and Luca Hollenstein made 21 saves for the shutout.
Mads Søgaard, who plays for the WHL’s Medicine Hat Tigers, stopped 22-of-26 shots for Denmark in returning from an upper-body injury sustained in Wednesday’s opener when he surrendered 11 of the 14 goals against Canada.
Denmark has yet to score a goal through three games — also getting blanked 4-0 by Russia on Thursday — and will likely be facing relegation after finishing the round robin against the Czech Republic on Monday.
Switzerland, which previously earned a point for a 2-1 overtime loss to the Czechs in Wednesday’s tournament opener, wraps up round-robin play against Russia on Sunday.
Larry Fisher is a senior writer and head scout for The Hockey Writers, having been an at-large contributor for THW since August 2014. Fisher covers both the NHL and the WHL, specializing in prospects and NHL draft content, including his annual mock drafts that date back to 2012. Fisher has also been a beat writer for the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets since 2008, formerly working as a sports reporter/editor for The Daily Courier in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada from 2008-2019. Follow him on Twitter: @LarryFisher_KDC.