EDMONTON — After an undefeated run through their first six tests at the 2022 World Junior Championship, Canada will meet its biggest on Saturday night, under the lights at Rogers Place. The red and white are going for gold.
“It’s everything,” Canadian standout Logan Stankoven said of the opportunity awaiting them, a wide grin spread across his face after his side took down Czechia 5-2 on Friday to advance. “There’s no place I’d rather be than playing for the gold tomorrow, on our home soil, in front of the fans.”
For the second straight game, it was Stankoven and his linemates who played a lead role in guiding Canada to the win column, he and wingers Kent Johnson and Tyler Foerster keeping their crown as the team’s most dominant line heading into the tournament’s finale.
After Stankoven took his turn at a dominant performance to clinch Wednesday’s quarterfinal, Friday’s tilt was Johnson’s time to show the world what he can do.
The Columbus Blue Jackets prospect was certainly due for a big night. Entering this semifinal with the most shots of any skater in the tournament, and only one goal to show for it — albeit a spectacular one that saw him pull off The Michigan — Johnson finally saw the floodgates creak open a little bit more on Friday.
It started as it has for his line the past few games — a dominant shift in the offensive zone in which he, Stankoven and Foerster whirled around the opposing defenders looking for the right moment to strike. Eventually, it came on the heels of a Stankoven-to-Foerster look, the chance leading to a rebound that found Johnson in the slot. After pouring on shot after shot every game for the past two weeks, the 19-year-old made no mistake.
But it was as a setup man in the second period that Johnson truly flexed his offensive muscle. Ten minutes into the frame, he was dancing along the wall and drawing defenders towards him before flipping a beautiful backhand over to a streaking Stankoven, who put it away. Five minutes later, he was loading up a slapper at the top of the point on the power play, only to fake out the Czech defenders and instead dish it softly to a waiting Mason McTavish, who wired home the signature one-timer he’s burned many a goalie with during this tournament.
“It’s just incredible some of the passes he makes,” Stankoven said of Johnson post-game. “The things he does are crazy, and it just goes to show how great of a player he is. He’s pretty nifty.”
Added Connor Bedard, who added to Canada’s goal tally with a gorgeous snipe of his own in the first period: “He’s probably the smoothest player I’ve ever seen, just the way he can find seams and look guys off.”
Key to Johnson’s standout performance over the course of the tournament has been the two players he’s been able to hop over the boards with, too. While the rest of Canada’s lineup has seemed in constant flux, with head coach Dave Cameron shuffling his lines in search of the right combination of skill-sets — even splitting up Bedard and McTavish for Friday’s semifinal — the trio of Johnson, Stankoven and Foerster has been a no-doubter game in and game out.
“I think [it’s] just our compete level, and being able to create chances off the forecheck,” Stankoven said of why his line has been able to emerge as the squad’s best. “I thought at the beginning of the tournament there wasn’t as much of that, but as the tournament’s gone on we’ve found our chemistry and know where each other are, so it’s been great.”
Even with the sterling night from the trio, putting away Czechia — who entered Friday’s game fresh off upsetting the similarly-undefeated Americans — was no easy assignment. Things got particularly dicey in the second period, as the Czechs picked up steam and started making a strong push, peppering Dylan Garand from all angles.
The netminder stayed calm and composed, looking as unflappable as he has each time he’s been in the cage over these past two weeks, holding the Czechs at bay.
In the third, though, Czechia finally made things interesting, sniping twice in a two-minute span to cut the host’s lead in half, before Joshua Roy tucked home Canada’s fifth to put his team’s minds at ease.
“They’re a good team and they didn’t get away from their game at all. They pushed back, and they wanted to climb their way back into the game,” Stankoven said of that late chaos. “Obviously when they made it 4-2, we realized, ‘Hey, we’ve got to shut this thing down and make sure that we play well enough defensively.’ And that fifth goal sealed the game.”
With Czechia dispatched, the page now turns to Saturday night, where months of preparation and weeks of toil out on the Rogers Place ice will culminate in one 60-minute chance at history.
“We’re going for the gold. That’s what we come for,” coach Cameron said of the task at hand. “It’s not going to be easy. I mean, the last couple of games showed the nitty gritty of it — it’s a grind. So, we’re excited about the challenge, but we also realize it’s going to be a battle.”
If there’s any solace to be taken, it’s that the red and white will march into the tournament’s finale with some experience under their belt, a number of this 2022 group’s leaders having claimed gold at last year’s U18 Championship in Texas.
Bedard, Stankoven, and Brennan Othmann all put up goals in the gold-medal game during that championship run. That education is crucial, Cameron explained, because there’s simply no other way to get it.
“One of the things you can’t practice is pressure,” the coach said. “You can talk about it all you want, but the pressure of the game, the pressure of a shootout, and all that — you can practice it until hell freezes over, but you can’t duplicate that pressure.”
On Saturday night, Canada will find out just how battle-tested they are, just how much they’ve learned on the paths that led them to this moment. For McTavish, the team’s captain, who’s dominated this tournament to the tune of eight goals and 15 points through six games, that final battle for gold can’t come soon enough.
“It’s something special,” he said Friday at Rogers Place, a maple leaf-adorned hat pulled low over his curls. “You know, it’s why you play the game. Every kid dreams about the gold-medal game.
“Hopefully we can take advantage of the opportunity.”