The two world junior veterans showed off their savvy in the quarterfinal, making timely contributions and covering up some team deficiencies
The emotions and the soundbites were all in line with the result. The Canadians, elated to be through to the quarterfinal after losing in that round last year to Finland. The Czechs, morose after seeing their world juniors end with a 5-3 loss, despite getting staked to a 1-0 lead when a puck bounced off an official and right to Philadelphia pick David Kase for a fluke goal. But to outside observers - that is, many of us in the press box - Canada's win didn't exactly answer all the questions surrounding the team coming into the tournament.
Goaltending, for example, has been tricky. Once again, Canada dramatically outshot and outchanced its opponent, yet the Czechs were able to keep the game close for longer than expected by sneaking a few past Connor Ingram. Ever the optimist, the Tampa Bay prospect didn't sound too concerned after the game, however.
“A win’s a win and I thought we played well," he said. "The first period was tough - that was a weird goal - but we were resilient, we worked hard and kept up our game.”
Coach Dominique Ducharme is now faced with his most difficult decision of the tournament: stay with Ingram for the semifinal against a Swedish squad that boasts the most dangerous forwards in the tourney, or go back to Carter Hart (PHI), who seemingly lost the job to Ingram during the round robin.
As it has been for years, goaltending may ultimately decide Canada's fate at the world juniors. It didn't kill them against the Czechs, because a pair of returnees from last year's squad had monster games.
Defenseman Thomas Chabot (OTT) and winger Mitchell Stephens (TB) led the way, with Chabot playing crucial minutes and Stephens being a force up front, counting points on the first three Canadian goals.
Chabot, perhaps Canada's best player all tournament, played nearly half the first period (9:30) and only slightly less in the second. He ended up with more than 25 minutes of ice time, but was more than happy to take the load.
“It’s something I’m used to back in junior," he said. "It helps me a lot and I really appreciate the role. Before the tournament, I wanted to have a big role on this team, so I’m glad how it’s worked out so far.”
Chabot also scored a momentum-swinging goal in the second period, confidently stepping in from the blueline to wire one past young goalie Jakub Skarek (2018 draft), who was great for the Czechs.
“He’s huge," Ingram said of Chabot. "He’s a fun guy to watch and he’s making himself a household name across Canada right now and it’s exciting to see. The guy’s got a ton of skill."
As too does Stephens, who missed the past few games due to an ankle injury. Canada sorely needed his spark early on and Stephens came through.
“He’s always working his ass off on the ice," Chabot said. "Always first on pucks, winning every battle. He’s also a fast player, so we were all happy to have him back in the lineup.”
Without those two catalysts, perhaps others would have stepped up for Canada, but Chabot and Stephens were definitely needed. This game was much closer than it should have been and it's hard not to see cracks in the Canadian game right now. Of course, the bar is set super-high for the squad and if they topple Sweden, the worrying will subside.
And to be fair, you just have to ask their competition to get an honest assessment of Canada's power right now.
“We played like a team," said Martin Necas, the Czechs' top draft prospect for 2017. "It was good, but Canada is probably the best team in this tournament. We scored three goals, but they had very many scoring chances.”
Thanks to past defeats, the Canadians aren't getting cocky, either.
“Having the adversity tonight, being down 1-0, we drew from that past memory of losing to the Finns (last year)," Stephens said. "Having all four lines bringing the pace up, especially in the second and third, we were hemming them in their ‘D’ zone and had a lot of energy."
So Canada will officially have a better result this year than last, even if way more fans saw them lose in Helsinki than win in a barren Bell Centre. The tourney is down to the top four teams and there is no more room for error. How much separates Sweden and Canada, Russia and the United States? We're about to find out.