Canada not counting out underdog Czechs in world juniors semifinals

·4 min read

EDMONTON — Nathan Gaucher has been having a pretty special summer.

In early July, the 18-year-old from Chambly, Que., heard his name called 22nd overall by the Anaheim Ducks at the NHL entry draft.

Now, he's working on making another dream come true as he and Team Canada battle for gold at the world junior hockey championship in Edmonton.

"It's been a lot of focus on hockey," he said. "Sometimes in the summer you want to take your mind off. But I can't complain one bit about this summer. It was very nice."

In order to capture gold, though, Gaucher and team Canada will have to get past a familiar — if unexpected — opponent in Friday's semifinal.

Czechia, the country commonly known as the Czech Republic, captured its spot in the game by toppling the reigning champion Americans in quarterfinal action Thursday.

The Canadians took a 5-1 victory over the Czechs in the preliminary round, but that result doesn't count for anything come Friday, Gaucher said.

“We were watching the (U.S.-Czechia) game yesterday — huge team win, huge sacrifice," he said Thursday. "So we’ll have to go back to our little things and forget about what we did against them before.”

While Canada (5-0-0) has gone undefeated through five games in the tournament, Czechia (2-2-1) struggled through round-robin action, losing to Latvia and Slovakia, as well as Canada.

"Everybody was pretty down so the coaches job was to make them believe they could beat U. S. A.," said goalie coach Ondrej Pavelec. "I think we played a great game. We played with fire, we played the right way, we weren't scared at all. We just battled so hard. And we beat them."

Posting another upset on Saturday will require a similar mindset.

Canada is a fast team full of skilled players, Pavelec said.

“We have to be disciplined, stay out of the box, not do stupid penalties," he said of the team that has served 78 penalty minutes so far. "If we do five-on-five, we have a chance.”

The Czechs haven't won a medal at the world juniors since 2005 when they took home bronze, but Canada — which took silver at the 2021 tournament — isn't counting them out.

"(The Czechs) area great team," said captain Mason McTavish. "They work really hard, they clog the middle, it’s hard to kind of get to the inside to score. We’re going to focus on doing that.”

Every team is a good team by the time you reach the semifinals at a tournament like the world juniors, said Canada's head coach Dave Cameron.

At this point, it doesn't matter who his side will face.

“It’s about us," Cameron said. "And we have to be sure that we play our system and don’t beat ourselves. And we’ll see what happens if we do.”

Canada has outscored its opponents 33-10 across five games while the Czechs have been outscored 15-20.

Special teams have been key for the Canadians, too, with a power play that has capitalized on 54.5 pre cent of its chances and an 83.3 per cent penalty kill.

The Canadians may be missing a key piece on Friday, however.

Forward Ridly Greig left Wednesday's 6-3 quarterfinal win over Switzerland in the first period with an apparent shoulder injury. He did not practise with his teammates on Thursday and Cameron said he's not sure about his availability for Friday's game.

Greig, an Ottawa Senators prospect, has put up six points (three goals, three assists) for Canada at the tournament and been a key piece of the penalty kill.

It would be "pretty much impossible" to fill his role, McTavish said.

"He's a really good player," he said. "It's the consistency. Probably one of the hardest things to do is just be good each game. So it's definitely going to be really hard. Hopefully he's good to go."

Czechia comes into Friday's game with limited expectations, while Canada — playing on home soil — is a perennial favourite in the competition.

The pressure has amped up as the Canadians continue their quest for gold, said defenceman Olen Zellweger.

“I think you’ve just got to approach it like any other game, prepare the same way," he said. "It’s a hockey game and you’ve got to be ready from the get-go and be sharp.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 18, 2022.

Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press