HALIFAX — Another classic gold medal game looked to be easily in the grip of Canada until a third-period push by Czechia resulted in a game-tying two goals in 54 seconds. Overtime had a number of chances, but a turnover by Buffalo prospect Jiri Kulich lead to a Joshua Roy and Dylan Guenther 2-1 after a stretch pass from defenceman Brandt Clarke. The game ended 6:22 into the extra frame.
Interest on That Loan?
All three of the NHL players loaned to Canada had an impact in the gold medal game, accounting for all three of Canada’s goals. Arizona’s Guenther scored twice, including the OT GWG. L.A.’s Clarke had two assists while Seattle’s Shane Wright netted the other in the 3-2 win.
All told, the three NHLers combined to score 13 of Canada’s 42 goals and 12 assists for 25 points.
Minor Hockey, Major Win
The three former Don Mills Flyers U16 teammates — Wright, Clarke and New York Rangers prospect Brennan Othmann — combined for eight goals and 21 points over Canada’s seven games.
With the gold medal game on his 19th birthday, Wright saved his best game for last. Engaged right from puck drop, winning battles, creating chances and scoring were all part of what we saw the fourth-overall pick do while winning U18 world gold in El Paso during the summer of 2021.
Wright finished the gold medal game with one goal and five shots while winning 52 per cent of his faceoffs and playing 21:18. He even had the crowd sing Happy Birthday to him during a stoppage.
Bronze was Pure Gold
The 8-7 overtime win for the U.S. over Sweden in the bronze medal game was wild, to say the least. The Swedes battled back from down 2-0, 3-1, 5-3, and actually led the game 6-5 in the third. Cutter Gauthier put the U.S. ahead with 1:37 left only to have Filip Bystedt tie it with 22 seconds remaining to send it into overtime. The heroics ran out when Winnipeg prospect Chaz Lucius scored his third of the game to end it.
For the tournament, Slovakian Adam Gajan was named top goalie, Czechia’s David Jiricek the top defenceman, while Connor Bedard earned top forward and MVP honours. Although he was held off the scoresheet in the gold medal game, Bedard still finished with nine goals and 14 assists for 23 points, setting a number of Canadian records but also setting a tournament standard for most points by a U18 player.
The media all-stars were Czechia’s Tomas Suchanek in goal, Jiricek and Sweden’s Ludvig Jansson on defence, and Bedard, Kulich and Logan Cooley of the United States as the top three forwards.
Youth Serves Notice
With the 2023 NHL Draft expected to be one of the most anticipated in years, it’s easy to see why so many first-year, draft-eligible players had such an impact in the tournament — more than I’m used to seeing.
Take Bedard for example. He became the top-scoring U18 player in tournament history. By the end of the tournament, Adam Fantilli looked more comfortable and showed off his vast array of skills.
Leo Carlsson vaulted Sweden into the semis with a two-goal effort in the quarters. American goaltender Trey Augustine was brilliant in leading the U.S. into the semis before he faltered. Axel Sandin-Pellikka was on in the final minute of the bronze with Sweden down a goal.
More than that though — and while points aren’t always reflective of a player’s impact — there were plenty of draft eligibles who were leaned on in key situations. The Slovaks played Maxim Strbak for almost 20 minutes per game while Dalibor Dvorsky played in every key situation including overtime.
Austrian defenceman David Reinbacher may have been guilty of trying to do too much for undermanned Austria, and he was not near 100 per cent for the relegation round, but there’s plenty to like about the 6-2, 187-pound, right-shot defenceman.
Holy Moly, Goalies
Leading into the semis, it looked certain either one of Augustine or Sweden’s Carl Lindbom would take top goaltender. But after Augustine allowed five against Canada and another five against Sweden in 40 minutes of the bronze medal game, his chances took a significant downturn. As for Lindbom, he too was victimized by the U.S. in the bronze allowing eight goals, pulling him out of the race.
Instead, two 19-year-old undrafted WHL goaltenders went into the gold medal game competing for that distinction. Canada’s Thomas Milic stopped 24 of 26 shots to outduel Suchanek, who was great in making 35 saves for Czechia.
Keep an eye out for this trio of undrafted goalies in Nashville come June. Gajan wasn’t supposed to factor, but the Slovakian netminder put up a 2.40 goals-against average and a .936 save percentage over five games. Milic took the net and ran with it for Canada. The 19-year-old, who plays with WHL Seattle, had a 1.76 GAA and a .932 save percentage in five games. Suchanek of WHL Tri-City finished with a 1.52 GAA and a .934 save percentage having played every minute of every game for Czechia.
Slovaks Continue to Rise
So impressed with the play of Slovakia. In a pre-2022 draft meeting with Craig Ramsey, the Slovakian national team head coach, he claimed the Slovaks are now teaching skill and preaching a style of game that plays to win as opposed to playing not to lose.
When we saw three Slovakians taken in round one, including the first two picks of the 2022 NHL Draft, little did we know that more talent would be on the way.
It looks like the young pipeline of Slovakian talent will continue in the 2023 NHL draft. Dvorsky showed a number of different elements to his game in Slovakia’s 4-3 OT loss to Canada in the quarters. He was up against Canada’s top two lines all night, taking important draws and out again in overtime. A huge responsibility for a 17-year-old in this tourney.
Not to mention defenceman Strbak, who looks smaller than his 6-foot-2, 187-pound frame would suggest, was also given key matchups and important minutes including overtime. He will be on the fringes of the first round as he plays with the poise and maturity of someone 10 years his elder.
An amazing performance for Gajan. Slovakia’s goalie made 53 saves against Canada and wasn’t even named the team’s player of the game.
Not so Swede
It’s mind-baffling how well the Swedes play in the preliminary round year after year. By my count, Sweden is 72-6 in preliminary-round play dating back to 2006. Since that time, the Swedes have four silver and five bronze medals, having won the title just once, in 2012.
Boston Bruins first-rounder Fabian Lysell was ejected during the first period of the bronze medal game after an illegal check to the head. Disappointingly, the Swedish forward went pointless in the tournament.
Anaheim Ducks defence prospect Tyson Hinds saved the quarterfinal game for Canada with an open-hand glove save on Slovakia’s Adam Sykora, reminding everyone of what Mason McTavish did in the summer sparking Canada to gold.
Hali Lu Ya!
After having spent two weeks here calling the 2019 Memorial Cup, it came as no surprise that the city of Halifax pulled off another amazing event. Maritime hospitality once again shone through. From volunteers to bartenders and everyone in between, Halifax knows how to throw a party.