Canada didn’t roll over Slovakia, and that might be the best thing to happen to this team at the world junior championship.
Facing adversity and nervous tension for the first time all tournament, Canada gutted through a tough game and eventually pulled away for a 5-1 victory Sunday night. Russia awaits in the gold-medal game.
During the third period, chants of “We Want Russia” and “We Want Gold” echoed through Air Canada Centre, and in the waning minutes fans sang a full rendition of “O Canada.” The rivalry with Russia that extends back to the 1972 Summit Series will get another chapter Monday night.
“It’s the best thing for all of the hockey community, for business,” Russian coach Valeri Bragin said. “Russia-Canada: hockey classic.”
Stunted by their own inconsistent play early and stopped at many turns by Slovak goaltender Denis Godla, Canada may be better-prepared for Russia than it would’ve been had it won in a blowout. While Russia had to beat the United States and Sweden in the knockout round, Canada hasn’t trailed in any of its games and took an easy road through Denmark to reach the semifinals.
Led by Godla and his 39 saves, Slovakia proved to be a much tougher opponent. But Nic Petan had a hat trick, Shea Theodore and Anthony Duclair each added a goal, Connor McDavid recorded three assists and Zach Fucale made 14 saves to ensure the end of Canada’s world junior medal drought that dated back to 2012.
Russia, which beat Sweden 4-1 earlier Sunday, is standing between Canada and its first gold medal in this tournament since 2009 in Ottawa.
“That’s going to be a tough game,” Russia’s Rinat Valiev said. “I saw a couple games, they’re very skilled. But we played against Canada before so I’m not scared to play against (them).”
Canada and Russia last met for gold in 2011 in Buffalo. Russian forward Ivan Barbashev said fans all over that country remember the comeback from down 3-0 for the 5-3 victory, a game Canadians would much rather forget.
“It was unreal,” Barbashev said. “We have a pretty good team this year and we can beat anyone.”
This was the first time Canada and Slovakia were facing off in the world junior semifinals. Canada’s players understood this wouldn’t be as easy as the first meeting with Slovakia, an 8-0 drubbing on Boxing Day.
“They’re a different team and so are we,” winger Max Domi said Sunday morning. “We’ve both come a long way, and we’ve done a lot to get where we are now.”
Undefeated, Canada cruised into the semifinals by blowing out Denmark in the quarter-finals. Slovakia got stellar play from Godla to beat the Czech Republic in Montreal.
Canada was an entirely different animal for Slovakia. Godla called it “the game of our lives.”
Slovakia played like it, not rolling over despite a drastic talent discrepancy. Forward Martin Reway said one of the goals was not to give up a goal early to give themselves a chance.
The Slovaks hung with Canada early, but a penalty opened the door for Canada to make it 1-0. Captain Curtis Lazar cut to the net and found Petan, who got the puck on his forehand and beat Godla short side, top corner.
Canada’s biggest scare came when Slovakia’s Pavol Skalicky blocked defenceman Madison Bowey’s shot from the blue-line and went the other way for a breakaway. Fucale made arguably his biggest save of the tournament by stretching out to get his right foot on the shot just inside the post.
Shots were 6-6 at the end of the first period, which may have been Canada’s worst 20 minutes in any game. The ice tilted in the second period, but Godla stood tall.
Slovakia’s draft-eligible goaltender stopped 19 straight shots from Petan’s first goal until he scored again at 18:06 of the second. McDavid made an absurd pass through traffic to Petan, who beat Godla clean to give Canada some breathing room.
With 28.3 seconds left, Theodore’s goal off a pass from Anthony Duclair made it 3-0 and infused energy into a nervous crowd. But then a blown tire by Bowey led to a three-on-one and a goal for David Soltes to keep Slovakia in it.
Duclair scored 2:47 into the third to restore Canada’s three-goal lead. After keeping the puck through Slovak defenders, he shot from below the goal-line and banked it in off Godla’s skate.
Petan completed the hat trick at 11:59 of the third to set off celebrations in the stands and on the bench.