HALIFAX – Coming in, Canada knew the Americans would provide the strongest test to date.
With a top line comprised of three first-round picks, a small, speedy defence and a young goalie playing out of his mind – not to mention a super-secret plan to contain Canadian superstar Connor Bedard in its back pocket – Canada knew it was in for a rugged battle.
And that’s exactly what happened – for the first two periods.
But clutch goaltending from Thomas Milic, outstanding hustle by Joshua Roy and six unanswered goals (well, sort of) led Canada to a thrilling 6-2 win over the United States in world junior semifinal action here Wednesday.
Canada moves on to face Czechia in a final on Thursday that has redemption written all over it for the Canadians. The Americans will face the Swedes in the bronze-medal game.
Czechia beat Canada 5-2 in the tourney opener for both teams on Boxing Day.
Back to the “sort of.” As it happened, the Americans had two goals called back because of goaltender interference, one that would have tied it in the second period and another that would have made it 4-3 early in the third.
They were considerable momentum changers. Both appeared to be legitimate calls, but you could tell the Americans were frustrated when asked about them afterward.
“The refs made the calls, it is what it is, can’t change that now,” said American captain Luke Hughes.
The final score would indicate a thrashing, but all was not looking rosy in the early going for Canada.
The Canadians got off to another slow start, with the U.S. going up 2-0 on goals by Logan Cooley and Kenny Connors. The Americans pounced repeatedly on poor clearing passes by the Canadian defence, which struggled most of the night to get clear of the zone and find its rhythm among the Americans’ tight checking and relentless sticks.
“I don’t know, honestly,” Roy said, when asked why Canada had yet another slow start. “Things can happen. We didn’t panic and we came back in the game. When we started to play our way, we just dominated the game.”
When the Canadians were struggling to generate even the slightest bit of offence – they were outshot 9-0 after the first five minutes before finally responding with six straight on their first power play – Milic was there to say no.
Time after time, the undrafted goalie responded in key moments by turning aside strong scoring chances.
Whenever the Canadians scored, the speedy and relentless Americans inevitably came right back, but Milic repeatedly slammed the door. When the Canadians were killing a penalty, Milic was there with the big save.
“There’s only so many words to describe it. It was unbelievable,” Bedard said of Milic’s play. “Without him, I don’t know if we win that game there. He got so many great looks and he’s so good. We trust him so much back there.”
The biggest concern heading into the tournament for the Canadian team was suddenly its biggest asset.
“It was incredible,” Milic said. “It’s definitely the best moment of my hockey career and maybe my life too. So, it’s pretty special.”
Milic held his side in it long enough for Bedard to break loose, scoring Canada’s first goal from his knee off a sweet cross-crease pass by Roy. Canada was back in the game, the crowd turned it up to 11 and never truly looked back.
“That first goal was huge for them,” USA coach Rand Pecknold said. “I thought they got a little confidence out of that, and our bench was a little deflated because we know we shouldn’t have given it up (because) we made some mistakes. And then, again, each time a goal got called back, that was that deflating.”
All told, Milic made clutch saves off, among others, Jimmy Snuggerud (two), Red Savage, Connors, Tyler Boucher, Cutter Gauthier (three) and Hughes. With Bedard held to a mere goal and assist, which qualifies as being shut down in his world, this game was all Milic.
However, someone has to generate the scoring, and Roy’s performance was the engine that drove the offence. He had two goals and two assists, capped by, with Canada killing a penalty and Trey Augustine on the bench for the extra attacker, stripping not one but two Americans of the puck before dashing in and firing it into the empty net.
That was just the stuff that you can see on the scoresheet – Roy’s speed was instrumental in earning his team’s momentum back. With Dylan Guenther sent off 2:42 into the second for slashing, Roy did yeoman’s work killing off the penalty with aggressive forechecking — trapping the Americans in their own zone with heavy stickwork, tireless hustle and effective delay tactics. The work was recognized with a raucous ovation from the Halifax crowd as he skated to the bench.
“He was unreal,” said linemate Bedard, who now has nine goals and 14 assists for 23 points in the tournament. “He’s one of of the smartest players that I’ve gotten to play with, and just how he dominated that game and stepped up his game obviously when it mattered most is incredible.”
Logan Stankoven, who tied it 47 seconds into the second, Adam Fantilli and Brandt Clarke had the other goals for Canada.
Dating back to 2015, the Americans and Canadians have now faced each other seven times, with the U.S. winning five of those games. Canada’s other win came in a 6-4 victory in the 2019 preliminary round. The last meeting was in the 2021 bubble final, where the Americans prevailed, 2-0.
With the history of the two teams, there was no shortage of animosity, which you could see in the dejected Americans and elated Canadians doing interviews afterward. On the day before the game, Canada defenceman Clarke summed it up pretty succinctly:
“We want to beat them so bad,” he said. “They want to beat us so bad. And when you have two teams that are that passionate about defeating the other team, you always get a good game out of it.”
Under-the-radar performance: Fantilli had another strong game for Canada, chipping in a beautiful Zach Dean pass across the crease for the game-winner, showing a generous amount of hustle and seriously making a case for more ice time down the stretch. He hasn’t had the tournament many anticipated, but his depth effort up front helped take the pressure off the top lines.
Also worth mentioning is the penalty-killing prowess of Tyson Hinds, who ate up some time along the boards with the Americans pressuring to get set up on the power play. The Canadian D overall had a rough night, but Hinds set himself apart with his effort.