Quietly, the Czech Republic has been the darling team of the 2018 world junior championship. They upset the Russians in their opener, went 3-1 through the preliminary round, and, in Tuesday’s 4-3 quarterfinal victory, vanquished a Finland team many believed would at least make the medal round if not win the entire tournament.
Their reward for this Cinderella run? A date Thursday in the semifinals with Canada, the tournament’s highest-scoring team.
The odds are certainly stacked against the Czechs, who are now deeper into the tournament than they have been in more than a decade. Coming into Tuesday’s game against Finland, Czech Republic had lost 10 straight quarterfinals and hadn’t reached the semis since 2005, when they took home the bronze with a 3-2 overtime victory over the host Americans.
And the tournament math doesn’t favour them in the semis, either. The Czechs beat Finland in a shootout Tuesday despite being outshot 54-30. Canada beat that same Finnish team 4-2 earlier in the tournament, holding a 32-31 shot advantage. In pre-tournament play, Canada crushed the Czechs 9-0 and outshot them handily 32-18.
So, it doesn’t look good. But anything can happen in a tournament like this, and the Czechs assert they’re a different team now than they were when they played Canada before the tournament, on a day when they had just landed in North America and were missing several key players.
And they should have strong chemistry. This Czech team carries nine players who were a part of their country’s gold-medal winning effort at the 2016 U18 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament.
If the Czechs are to pull off the upset and continue their underdog run, here are five players who will likely lead the way.
LW Filip Zadina
The Czechs have scored the fourth-most goals in the tournament (only one behind Sweden and two behind the United States) and a big part of that has been the stellar play of Zadina, the Halifax Mooseheads winger.
The 18-year-old is draft eligible this year and ranked as a top-five prospect by a host of outlets. Tuesday against Finland he showed why, scoring twice, including a beautiful tip-in that tied the game in the dying minutes.
Zadina now has five goals through five games at this tournament (he had 24 in 32 games for Halifax this season), and you can be sure Canadian defencemen will be paying extra close attention any time he’s on the ice. And definitely look out for Zadina on the power play, where he’s scored four of his goals thus far.
G Josef Korenar
Simply put, the Czechs wouldn’t be in the semifinals if not for Korenar, who played brilliantly against the Finns in his team’s quarterfinal victory. The San Jose Sharks prospect stopped 48 of the 51 shots he saw in regulation, and four of the five he faced in the shootout as the Czechs pulled off the upset.
Korenar comes into the semis with the second-highest save percentage in the tournament (92.2 per cent) and sets up a very interesting goaltending duel with Canadian netminder Carter Hart. When these two teams faced off in pre-tournament play, Korenar was on the Czech bench for all nine Canadian goals. He took over late in the game and Canada didn’t score again.
C Filip Chytil
A first-round pick (21st overall) by the New York Rangers last year, Chytil hasn’t quite had the tournament many were expecting him to. He still has two goals and two assists, but he was anticipated to be one of his team’s most productive players, especially considering he started his season in the NHL with the Rangers.
But it’s not for a lack of effort. He’s taken 18 shots through five games, and if he starts to find better luck, goals could come in a hurry. He’s been playing with the Hartford Wolf Pack in the AHL this season, so he won’t be intimidated by Canada’s physicality. And if he finds the puck in open space, he can be one of his team’s most dangerous threats.
C Martin Necas
Necas has been a key playmaker for the Czechs in every game they’ve played, putting up six assists to go along with his three goals. He’s a Carolina Hurricanes first-rounder (12th overall) and played his first NHL game earlier this season.
Necas isn’t the biggest player on the ice, but he’s exceptionally quick, and has good hands that allow him to carry the puck through heavy traffic. He’s been key to Zadina’s success in the tournament, attracting plenty of defensive attention while allowing his linemate to find open ice.
Speedy Albert Michnac of the Mississauga Steelheads is the third part of that line which has been Czech Republic’s best throughout the tournament.
D Libor Hajek
Hajek leads all tournament defencemen in scoring with seven points through five games, and is clearly Czech coach Filip Pesan’s most trusted blueliner. He logged 30:46 of ice time in his team’s victory over Finland, the most of any skater in the game.
The 19-year-old is a Tampa Bay Lightning second-round pick (37th overall) and came into the tournament after a fine start to his season for the WHL’s Saskatoon Blades, scoring 24 points in 32 games. You can expect Hajek to again lead his team in ice time against the Canadians.