Canada shows it’s more than Bedard with huge win over Sweden 

Canada's Joshua Roy, second from right, and Logan Stankoven, left, celebrate a goal in front of Sweden's goaltender Carl Lindbom, second from left, and Calle Odelius during third period IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship action in Halifax. (Darren Calabrese/CP)

HALIFAX – This is the kind of domination people had in mind when they looked at Canada’s lineup heading into the 2023 world juniors.

Fast, yes, but also patient, efficient on the power play, tight defensively, careful while killing penalties, boxing out attackers, opportunistic with rebounds, not making risky plays …

This kind of world-beating effort was expected against Germany and Austria.

Against Sweden, not so much.

But coming off two blowout wins against those weaker teams, Canada continued its high-flying ways with an utterly solid 5-1 win over Sweden at its final preliminary game here on New Year’s Eve.

With the regulation win, Canada moves on to face Slovakia in the quarterfinals on Monday – and, make no mistake, this team is on a heavy roll.

Many also expected Canada to be aggressive with a well-balanced attack. Sure, this is Connor Bedard’s tournament, justifiably — he added four assists on this night, giving him a tournament-leading 18 points and tying him with Eric Lindros for most career points by a Canadian — but success against Sweden came with 11 players registering at least a point.

“Anytime you can get everybody on the score sheet, it makes it a little tougher,” Canada coach Dennis Williams said. “Much like we were talking about our power play at one point. You know, how every guy can contribute and be a threat there. So, the more guys we can get on a contribution level and being a threat in the offensive zone, definitely makes it difficult at times in who you want to try to match against.”

Brennan Othmann, who scored two goals, agreed the team’s play has improved dramatically since the beginning of the tournament, which Canada opened with a 5-2 loss to Czechia.

“One-hundred times better,” said the Peterborough Petes forward. “I think we’re playing a more complete game. We’re back to that hard-nosed, grinding hockey which we need to play, especially later on in short-term competitions. I know we got away from that on Boxing Day, but now we’re starting to get back to our game. We’re playing real well, all four lines are contributing in their own way, our back-end is contributing and we can go with any goalie. … Our team played an outstanding game.”

Othmann was one of many Canadian forwards who threw his body around and blocked shots right from the start. Add to that list Joshua Roy, who was a whirling dervish of energy throughout the game and similarly set the tone early and often with blocked shots and heavy play. This was crucial to Canada’s success because it had started slowly in its previous two games, and could nay afford to have it happen again against a challenging opponent.

Roy checked that box by scoring 57 seconds after the opening faceoff, followed 1:11 later by Othmann’s first of the game, on the power play, and Canada was up 2-0 on its first two shots of the game. Tyson Hinds scored nine minutes later and Canada never looked back.

“The start was great, obviously, (against) a team that hadn’t given up a lot of goals, it was good to get on them early and fast,” Williams said.

The start wasn’t limited to the first period, either, as Othmann’s second goal came 35 seconds into the third, an immediate signal to the Swedes that Canada meant business and wouldn’t humour any fantasies of a comeback.

Canada wasn’t without its challenges. Swedish goalie Carl Lindbom, who came into the game with a microscopic 0.66 goals-against average and stunning .974 save percentage, was solid, and was not to blame for the loss.

And there was Zack Ostapchuk’s kneeing major 12:33 into the second, with the score 3-0 and putting Canada into a 5-on-3 hole for 53 seconds, which could have opened the door for the Swedes to march right back into it. But solid play from goalie Thomas Milic, more blocked shots by Roy and Co., and an unforgiving triangle, then rectangle, limited Sweden to one goal, a Ludvig Jansson wrister through traffic that beat a completely screened Milic top-shelf.

With its hard-charging finish to the preliminary round, Canada finished second in Group A, behind the Czechs, and now faces a Slovak team that went 2-0-1-1 and finished third in Group B.

“We made a statement to all of the teams in the tournament that the first game was just a mistake,” Roy said, “and we’re going to be ready for Slovakia.”

Under-the-radar performance

This was such a well-rounded win that any number of players qualify here: Nathan Gaucher blocking shots and almost causing a goalie turnover into a goal while killing a second-period penalty; Adam Fantilli stepping up after Ostapchuk’s ejection to play his best game of the tournament; and even Bedard backchecking early in the second, when he turned his blade upside down and chipped the puck away from a charging Swedish player, averting a possible breakaway.

But Milic deserves the nod here, making key stops when he had to, especially while Canada was killing off the five-minute major, getting in the way of everything, a huge kick save on Jonathan Lekkerimaki being the most spectacular.

“I just remember seeing the puck go across, but being a little late, so sometimes those desperation saves have to be made,” Milic said, recalling the save. “As a goalie, that’s something I have to be able to do, is pull out a save like that every once in a while. So, I just made a read and a little bit of flashy save, but it was fun.”

This marked the first game of the tournament in which Canada’s goaltending didn’t feel like a car crash waiting to happen.

“Goaltending was really steady,” said Sportsnet analyst and former NHL scout Jason Bukala.

“It gives them confidence as a group, knowing that he can perform like that.”

Milic’s play most certainly earned him the start for Canada’s quarterfinal match with Slovakia.

Viral moment of the game

Bedard’s fourth assist, which tied him for the points record by a Canadian at the world juniors, was a lesson in keepaway and patience before he dished it off to Kevin Korchinski for Canada’s fifth goal.

[brightcove videoID=6318064579112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

Notes: Canada lost forward Colton Dach to what appeared to be a right-shoulder injury late in the third period. Williams said afterward that he had not been updated as to Dach’s status. … Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman on Canada’s play: “This is why you don’t panic after the first game.” … Bedard received Canada’s player-of-the-game stick to a chorus of “M-V-P! M-V-P!” from the sold-out crowd at Scotiabank Centre.

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