OSTRAVA, Czech Republic — Canada was embarrassed by one of its bitter rivals, had its star cut down by injury, its captain embroiled in controversy and a key player suspended.
It was quite a 96-hour stretch at the world junior hockey championship.
And yet, the national team somehow found a way.
The Canadians scored four goals with the man advantage in a dominant first period Tuesday, beating the Czech Republic 7-2 to finish first in Group B and setting up a date with Slovakia in the quarterfinals.
Canada was thumped 6-0 by Russia — the country’s worst-ever defeat at the tournament — in its second game on a miserable night where Alexis Lafreniere, the projected No. 1 pick at the 2020 NHL draft, hurt his knee.
If that wasn’t bad enough, captain Barrett Hayton had a major brain cramp and forgot to remove his helmet during the anthem ceremony after the final buzzer.
Then centre Joe Veleno, a workhorse in the faceoff circle and on both special teams, was banned one game for a head-butting incident where he barely knocked visors with a Russian defenceman.
There was plenty of adversity.
“It was definitely tough on the logo,” said Nolan Foote, who scored in Tuesday’s early barrage. “We bounced back, and that was awesome.”
Veleno, in his return from suspension, Foote, Hayton and Connor McMichael scored on the power play in a span of nine minutes 49 seconds, making the hosts pay for a complete lack of discipline at the tightly called under-20 international event.
Head coach Dale Hunter, who was once suspended 21 games during his playing days for an infamous cheap shot on Pierre Turgeon, was proud of how his team, especially Hayton and Veleno, blocked out the noise.
“We forget that they’re just kids,” Hunter said. “Everybody makes mistakes. It’s how you respond after it. Take your punishment, move on.
“I know that personally.”
Veleno said the team made a point of ignoring the chatter, panic and criticism back home after the Russia debacle, picking up a 4-1 victory over Germany before thumping the Czechs on New Year’s Eve.
“We don’t want to be on social media too much,” said Veleno, who finally scored in his eighth world junior game. “We know some people will say good stuff, and there’s times we’re going to have bad stuff said about us. We want to stay with what’s in the four walls and be a team.”
Canada even faced a difficult stretch against the Czechs, who pushed back with two quick goals in the second from Vojtech Strondala and Libor Zabransky inside a raucous Ostravar Arena before Liam Foudy and Dylan Cozens, on another man advantage, put the game out of reach.
Jared McIsaac rounded out the scoring in the third, while Hayton and Cozens each added three assists for the 17-time gold medallists.
“There’s so much character on this team,” said Foote, whose father Adam won two Stanley Cups and Olympic gold. “We’re confident in our group.”
Joel Hofer made 17 saves in his second consecutive start for the Canadians, who will face Slovakia on Thursday.
“It’s going to be a tough game,” Cozens said. “We know they’re not going to go down easy.”
The other quarterfinal matchups will see Sweden meet the Czechs, the United States take on Finland and Switzerland tangle with Russia.
Lukas Parik found himself in a shooting gallery early Tuesday, stopping just 5 of the 9 shots he faced before leaving with a lower-body injury after McMichael scored Canada’s fourth. Nick Malik, the No. 3 netminder with starter Lukas Dostal already hurt, came on and finished with 19 stops.
Veleno got things started on Canada’s first man advantage before Foote blasted a one-timer upstairs for his third on another power play. Czech forward Otakar Sik was then assessed a five-minute major and a game misconduct for spearing Canadian defenceman Bowen Byram in the groin.
Another penalty made in a two-man advantage, and Hayton scored his third just 20 seconds later — a goal that just crossed the line despite Parik’s best efforts and needed a video review of more than seven minutes.
McMichael got in on the action just 61 seconds after that to tie a tournament record with four power-play goals in one period as the large pockets of Canadian support among the sellout crowd of 8,693 celebrated.
“First period decided the game,” Zabransky said.
Canada was once again without Lafreniere, the reigning CHL Player of the Year, but there’s still a chance he returns for the medal round.
Coached by former NHLer Vaclav Varada and minus injured star forwards Jan Jenik and Jan Sir, the Czechs made it 4-1 when Strondala, who was only just added to the roster, jumped on a rebound.
“It was unbelievable,” Hayton said of the atmosphere. “Nothing I’ve ever experienced before. The Czech fans were unreal.
“The energy in the building was electric.”
Zabransky added his fourth of the world juniors 14 seconds later when Canada couldn’t get the puck deep, but Foudy took advantage of a strange bounce off a dump-in to score his second just 10 seconds after that.
A challenge for offside by the Czechs failed and Cozens scored a fifth goal on the man advantage 56 seconds later to make it 6-2.
McIsaac added a seventh midway through the third to complete a rout that didn’t seem all that likely just a few days ago with all the distractions swirling around this group of talented teenagers shouldering huge expectations.
“We’ve got a good leadership group,” Hunter said. “We battled through.”