BUFFALO, N.Y. — Over the last several weeks, Team Canada head coach Dominique Ducharme has been spending an awful lot of time around his 18- and 19-year-old players — young athletes who should be in their first year of college or university right now.
Of course, they’re not. They’re all NHL prospects — academia will have to wait. But high school wasn’t that long ago. So, when asked what he stressed to his group ahead of its do-or-die world junior hockey championship semifinal against the Czech Republic Thursday night, Ducharme leaned on a fitting analogy.
“Preparation, preparation,” Ducharme said. “I always take it like — and we talked about it with the players — when you sit down at the exam and you studied, you’re like, ‘Bring it on. I know the answers.’ And we all had that feeling. But when you’re sitting down and you’re not sure and you’re hoping that the teacher is going to ask you the few questions you know, then you get nervous. Now you feel the pressure.
“Well, on our side, we prepared. We know what to do. We know how to play. And that’s what we’re going to do.”
Exam time Thursday is 8:00 p.m. ET, when Canada will try to bring an end to Czech Republic’s Cinderella run at this tournament and book a berth in Friday’s gold-medal game against either Sweden or the United States. Canada didn’t practice Thursday morning, which wasn’t a surprise, and only practised Wednesday because Tuesday’s quarter-final against Switzerland wasn’t a particularly physical game.
The good news Thursday was that defenceman Victor Mete, who has played 27 games for the Montreal Canadiens this season, will be dressed and ready to play against the Czechs. He suffered a lower-body injury late in Canada’s outdoor game against the United States last week and hasn’t played since, missing his team’s final game of the preliminary round and the quarter-final victory over the Swiss.
But after logging a full practice Wednesday, Mete reported Thursday feeling fresh, and is expected to resume being one of Canada’s top blue-liners. That means Ducharme will have a full complement of players for his team’s most important game thus far, which is a testament to how Canada’s coaching staff has navigated the tournament with several injuries to key players, including Mete, Kale Clague and Dante Fabbro.
“No setbacks, no surprises,” Ducharme said. “Full lineup. 100 per cent. That’s what we wanted to have. We managed ice time the whole tournament to make sure that guys were coming back 100 per cent. And that’s where we’re at today. That was our goal.”
Ducharme said Mete and his entire group would be playing full minutes Thursday, and that he’d only pull back on ice time if the game was well in hand and he didn’t want to expose certain players to injury late in an already-decided contest.
There is a quick turnaround to think about, with less than 24 hours between the conclusion of Canada’s semifinal and the beginning of either the bronze- or gold-medal game Friday. But at a tournament like this, you can’t get too far ahead of yourself.
“We’re not thinking about tomorrow, we’re thinking about tonight,” Ducharme said. “Our guys are in shape. We’ve been having days off. We’re ready for tonight. We’ll see for the other game. But I’m not worried about playing two in two. It’s just a few hours difference. I don’t think it makes an impact.”
The Czech team Canada will run into Thursday night has been the darling of this year’s world juniors, earning upset victories over Russia and Finland on its way to the semifinals. They’ve done it on the back of standout performances by Martin Necas (three goals, six assists), Libor Hajek (one goal, six assists) and Filip Zadina (five goals, one assist), who are all in the top 10 of tournament scoring.
Much of that damage has come on the power play, where the Czechs have converted on seven of 14 opportunities, with Zdina scoring four goals himself. That places added emphasis on Canada’s discipline, which was an issue earlier in the tournament but has been corrected over the last two outings.
After taking 18 penalties over its first three games, and paying for it dearly in the outdoor game versus the U.S., Canada has committed only five infractions in two games since.
“Yeah, we’ve been good since the U.S. game,” Ducharme said. “I think we know and we understand the impact. Our players feel it. They see the margin between winning and losing at this point in the tournament is slim. We’ve got to take care of every detail. And that’s one.
“[Czech Republic] for sure have a good power play. When you get to this time in the tournament, it’s four good teams. And usually you get there with a good five-on-five game and also good special teams. They’ve been doing a good job. … But if we play the right way, we’ll be out of the box.”
Another challenge Thursday will be solving Czech goaltender Josef Korenar, who was spectacular in his team’s quarter-final victory over Finland, stopping 48 of 51 shots in regulation, and four of five in a shootout.
Korenar’s 92.2 save percentage over five games is the second-highest in the tournament, and it’s not hyperbole to say his team’s chances in this one rest almost entirely on the San Jose Sharks prospect’s shoulders.
The Czechs will no doubt be out-shot Thursday. Canada’s offensive depth — 14 different players have scored thus far — is simply overwhelming. But if Korenar can withstand the barrage and continue his brilliant play, he can keep the window to an upset open.
Asked about Korenar’s hot play, and how important getting pucks past him early would be Thursday night, Ducharme said he was urging his team to merely focus on its own play and not that of its opponents. To be the kids who prepared thoroughly for the exam, and can’t wait to see the questions.
“We don’t focus on the things we don’t control. We focus on us and the things that we control. And we believe that if we do that, results will be on our side,” Ducharme said. “We’re confident in our process and in our plan. We’re confident in each other. And that’s the way we go about every game.
“When you feel good, when you feel confident, when you feel that you’ve done your homework, that you’ve covered all your bases and checked all your boxes, then you can be yourself. And then from there, you play the game, you play it the right way, you play it hard — and good things happen.”