Alexis Lafreniere returns in style to lift Canada into WJC semifinals

Canada's Barrett Hayton, left celebrates with teammate Alexis Lafreniere (11) after scoring the first goal against Slovakia. (Ryan Remiorz/CP)

When Alexis Lafreniere first went down with a knee injury last weekend against Russia, there was a lot of worry for both his health and what a long-term injury would do for Canada’s chances at the world junior championship.

Just five days later, the projected No. 1 pick at the 2020 NHL Draft made his presence known quickly and often during the quarterfinals to help Canada beat Slovakia 6-1 on Thursday and advance into the tournament’s semifinals.

Canada will face the defending champions from Finland in the semifinals on Saturday afternoon after the Finns upset the U.S. earlier Thursday in the quarters.

The Canadians, who were eliminated in the quarterfinals at last year’s tournament, return to the semis for the first time since 2018, when it beat Sweden for its 17th gold medal.

Lafreniere marked his return by getting in on the forecheck and launching body checks against his opponents. The solid forecheck helped Canada get its first goal by forcing a turnover behind the Slovak net before Lafreniere passed it out front to the slot where captain Barrett Hayton snapped it past goaltender Samuel Hlavaj.

And in the second period, he found the back of the net on the power play with a wrist shot to make it 5-0.

Having Lafreniere back and healthy was a major key to Canada’s success moving forward in the tournament. Sure, they did well in his absence against Germany and the Czech Republic, but to have a player of his calibre in games against elite competition in the semifinals and medal games, is crucial going forward.

Yes, Canada was a step above the competition all day long with its impressive speed and skill overmatching the opponent.

Here’s some takeaways from the quarterfinal win…

Hofer comes to play

Joel Hofer was ready to go in Canada’s quarterfinal matchup and he was tested plenty early on in his third straight start at the tournament.

After Nolan Foote was ejected for a hit to the head on Slovakia’s Kristian Kovacik just 53 seconds into the game, the Canadians were put on the defensive by trying to kill off a five-minute penalty.

The St. Louis Blues prospect made five saves on the ensuing disadvantage, none bigger than when he slid across the crease to get his right pad on a shot by Robert Dzugan as Maxim Cajkovic, who passed Dzugan the puck, started to celebrate.

Hofer finished the game with 14 saves for his third win at the event.

Foudy effect

Liam Foudy has been an effective player for Canada at this tournament and his strong play carried into the quarters.

He was buzzing all game long and finally, 30 minutes into the contest, it paid off with a goal as he burst down the left side on the forehand before changing to the backhand and lifting it up over Hlavaj’s shoulder to make it 4-0.

It was the Columbus Blue Jackets prospect’s third goal of the tournament to give him four points overall.

Connor McMichael, just over a minute in, and Ottawa Senators prospect Jacob Bernard-Docker also found the back of the net in the second for the Canadians.

Quick hits…

• Russia beat Switzerland 3-1 to advance as it seeks a first title at the event since 2011.

• How good has Canucks 2019 second rounder Nils Höglander been in this event? Two goals in a 5-0 quarterfinal win over the host Czech Republic was super clutch. He now has five goals and five assists at the WJC to top all scorers.

• Credit to Finland’s puck possession in its victory over the U.S. — a rematch of last year’s final at the tournament. A power-play goal by Joonas Oden was the difference and Justus Annunen was solid with 30 saves.

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