WJC Three Stars Day 9: Becher stands out in Czechia’s crazy comeback win

Czechia's Ondrej Becher (19) celebrates his goal with teammate Jiri Kulich (25) to tie the game during third period bronze medal action at the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship in Gothenburg, Sweden, Friday, Jan. 5, 2024. (Christinne Muschi/CP)

On the ninth, and final, day of action at the 2024 World Junior Championship, fans were treated to two extremely entertaining games. And by the end of it, we saw USA take home the gold, Sweden the silver and Czechia the bronze. 

The day kicked off with a dramatic showdown between Czechia and Finland in the bronze medal game, concluding in an almost unbelievable fashion. Trailing 5-4 with less than two minutes remaining in the game, Czechia pulled off a remarkable feat, scoring four goals before the final buzzer. When all was said and done, Czechia managed to score six unanswered goals from the point of the second period when Finland had a 5-2 lead over them. Pulling off an 8-5 win, Czechia earned their second straight medal, having won silver in 2023. 

Then, the game we have all been waiting for since the World Juniors opened on Boxing Day. USA and host Sweden, widely considered the two pre-tournament favourites, faced each other in the gold medal game, drawing a full crowd at the Scandinavium in Gothenburg. The teams spent some time early in the game tied up with one goal each, but Sweden never led at any point as the United States eventually secured a 6-2 win to become golden once again.

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This was the first time the teams had met in the final in 11 years, and with things getting quite heated near the end, it is likely a rivalry between the two has been solidified for next year. Winning their sixth all-time gold medal, and their first in three years, this also marks USA’s second consecutive medal finish after earning bronze in 2023. 

From start to finish, this tournament has been memorable, featuring standout performances from an array of players across the 10 teams involved. So, without further ado, here is a look at three stars from the last day of play at the World Juniors. 

3rd Star: Isaac Howard, USA

The 19-year-old Howard had two significant goals in USA’s win over Sweden. The first broke a 1-1 tie in the second period, when Drew Fortescue sent the puck along the boards to clear it out of the USA zone, which was grabbed by Howard. With a Swedish defenceman hot on his heels, Howard skillfully tucked in a backhand shot through the pads of goaltender Hugo Havelid. 

Now leading by one, Howard then doubled the Americans’ advantage with his second of the period. Receiving a pass from Gavin Brindley behind the Swedes’ net, Howard successfully deceived Havelid by initially appearing to look for a teammate to pass to, only to take a shot that deflected off the goaltender. With his second goal, Howard joined Sweden’s Jonathan Lekkerimaki at the top of the tournament leaderboard, each having scored seven goals over seven games. He finishes this year’s World Juniors having scored nine points in total and also leads the tournament in plus-minus at plus-10.

A Tampa Bay Lightning prospect, and currently playing for Michigan State University, Howard was rewarded Player of the Game honours for his outstanding performance in the final. 

2nd Star: Jiri Kulich, Czechia

Czechia scored eight goals over Finland, and the 19-year-old Kulich was attached to four of them. Down 2-0 in the first period, it was Kulich who struck first to put Czechia on the board. Only eight seconds into their power play, the captain received a perfect cross-ice pass from Matyas Melovsky and executed a sharp-angled one-timer that sailed past Finnish goaltender Niklas Kokko.

He scored his second of the contest early in the third period, another one-timer on the power play to cut Finland’s lead down to one goal. Kulich then earned the primary assist on Czechia’s subsequent two goals – scored by Ondrej Becher and Tomas Hamara. 

His four points Friday sees him finish with six goals and six assists over seven games at the tournament. Drafted by the Buffalo Sabres as the 28th overall pick in 2022, Kulich is currently on his three-year, entry-level deal with the club. In the 2023-24 season, he has played one game for the Sabres and 23 for their American Hockey League affiliate, the Rochester Americans, where he has recorded 22 points (16 goals and six assists). 

1st Star: Ondrej Becher, Czechia 

Recording five points in Friday’s game, Becher found his name featured all over the scoresheet against Finland. The 19-year-old acquired his first point with a secondary assist on Jakub Stancl’s power-play goal in the second period. Then, less than a minute before the second period’s conclusion, he notched his first goal of the contest, seizing a breakaway chance during a power play for the Finns. Becher rushed in alone, taking a shot short side on Kokko to score short-handed, narrowing their opponents’ lead to 5-3. 

His second levelled the game at five goals apiece in the third period after Czechia pulled their own netminder for the extra attacker. After Kokko made a save on Kulich’s shot from the point, the rebound went straight to Becher. Conveniently parked right in front of the net, he popped it home with 1:56 to go. Just 15 seconds later, Hamara gave Czechia a 6-5 lead, their first lead of the game, and Becher recorded the secondary assist on the goal. 

As the clock dwindled further, the Finns decided to pull Kokko, a move that saw them surrender an empty-netter by Dominik Rymon. A mere two seconds later, Becher netted one of his own to record a hat trick and cap off the Czech’s incredible comeback victory. 

Becher finishes the tournament with three goals and seven assists over seven games. Undrafted to the National Hockey League, Becher is in his second season with the Western Hockey League’s Prince George Cougars. Over 30 games this season, he has accumulated an impressive 16 goals and 29 assists for a total of 45 points. 

Honourable mentions:

• Czechia defenceman Tomas Hamara, a prospect for the Ottawa Senators, not only scored a goal in their win but also recorded two secondary assists, both on goals by Kulich. 

• USA forward Gabe Perreault, a prospect for the New York Rangers, made a significant impact by scoring his side’s opening goal. He followed it up with a secondary assist on Zeev Buium’s goal and provided the sole assist on Ryan Leonard’s goal. 

• USA goaltender Trey Augustine, a prospect for the Detroit Red Wings, made 24 saves on 26 shots for a .923 save percentage on Friday. He finishes the tournament with the best goals-against average and save percentage. 

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