World Junior Takeaways: Canada flops in opener vs. Czechia, hosts 0-for-2 on ‘The Michigan’

Czechia's Jaroslav Chmelar, centre, celebrates a goal in front of Canada's Jack Matier, left, and Colton Dach during second period IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship hockey action in Halifax, Monday, Dec. 26, 2022. (Darren Calabrese/CP)

It is hard to imagine a worse opener for Canada at the world junior hockey championship.

About the only good news — and it’s significant — is that the tournament format doesn’t punish teams too badly for losing against a heavy underdog in the first game.

The defending champs were sloppy defensively, got shaky goaltending and took one very bad penalty in a 5-2 loss against Czechia on Monday in Halifax.

Czechia did well to finish fourth this past summer in Edmonton, but it lost twice to Canada at that tournament and hasn’t won a world junior medal since 2005.

The shocking result Monday was the first time Czechia has ever beaten Canada in regulation in the history of the tournament.

Coach Dennis Williams has plenty of work to do on Tuesday’s off day to right the ship.

The road to gold may be more challenging after the loss as seeding will eventually come into play, but eight of 10 teams advance to the quarterfinals after the preliminary round.

With Austria — 11-0 losers to Sweden on Monday — and Germany still on Canada’s schedule (a game against the Swedes caps the first round), there is no need to panic just yet.

The same holds true for reigning runner-up Finland, which lost 3-2 to Switzerland in overtime in the tournament’s first game in Moncton, N.B. The United States also had a scare, breaking a 2-2 tie in the third period for a 5-2 win over Latvia.

For inspiration, Canada and Finland can look back at the recently concluded men’s soccer World Cup. Argentina lost 2-1 to lightly regarded Saudi Arabia in its opener before rebounding to win the title — and the margin for error is much smaller at that event.

However, it’s worth examining what went wrong for Canada on Monday. Here are some observations from opening night.

Defensive blunders

Canada simply wasn’t good enough in its own zone — and two of its biggest names made mistakes on the first two goals.

First, Adam Fantilli got caught watching the puck as defenceman David Spacek pinched in and got behind the Canadian forward. Spacek took a cross-ice pass from Stanislav Svozil and beat Canadian goalie Ben Gaudreau to tie it at 1-1 late in the first period.

Thirty-five seconds later, the Czechs won an offensive zone faceoff and Connor Bedard didn’t do a good enough job getting in the shooting lane.

David Moravec beat a screened Gaudreau and the Czechs were in front for the rest of the game.

Canada was guilty of giving the Czechs too much room throughout the contest.

Bedard and Fantilli are expected to be the top two picks in the 2023 NHL Draft — and this won’t change that. They are extremely talented and were responsible for plenty of chances at the other end on Monday — Bedard scored Canada’s second goal.

Consider the first-period letdown a nice teaching tool for coach Williams.

Major moment

After Bedard cut the lead to 3-2 in the second period, Canada’s Zach Dean got a five-minute major and was thrown out for a hit to the head on Ales Cech.

Was it the right call? You can certainly argue it wasn’t worth a major, but everyone knows calls like this can be made in international hockey.

The Czechs scored two goals on the ensuing power play.

Goaltending woes

Gaudreau was replaced by Thomas Milic after giving up five goals on 16 shots.

The fifth goal was the worst as Gaudreau let Matous Mensik beat him from a bad angle.

Canada didn’t name a No. 1 goalie heading into the tournament.

Milic now has a chance to earn the role. He held the Czechs off the board the rest of the way, so he’s off to a good start.

Too fancy or bad luck?

Fantilli, fittingly, tried to score a goal on a ‘The Michigan’ attempt in the first five minutes.

Fantilli, who plays at the University of Michigan, looked like he had a great chance to be successful for a lacrosse-style goal before Spacek got his stick on the wraparound attempt to knock it away.

At the Edmonton world juniors this summer, another Michigan product, Kent Johnson, scored on a ‘The Michigan’ for Canada against the Czechs in the preliminary round.

Later in the first period on Monday, Bedard was stopped by Czech goalie Tomas Suchanek on a ‘The Michigan’.

Sing it loud

Canada’s goal song has an Atlantic flavour — the catchy Heave Away by The Fables, a St. John’s band, debuted when Shane Wright put Canada up 1-0.

Sign of the times

A quick look at the boards shows just how much things have changed for Hockey Canada.

The traditional national sponsors don’t have board ads. Most of the ads seen on the TV broadcast are for the host cities and provinces, international sponsors (like Tissot) and the Canadian Hockey League.

Most of Hockey Canada’s main sponsors have pulled or suspended their support of the organization’s men’s programs during the sexual assault scandal.

Maritime hospitality

This marks the first time since 2010 (Regina and Saskatoon) that a Canadian-hosted world juniors is not in at least one city with an NHL team.

It seems like a good idea.

The lower deck in Halifax, which last hosted the event in 2003 (with Sydney, N.S.), looked almost full for the one-sided Sweden-Austria game in the afternoon with attendance announced as 7,274 at the 10,595-seat Scotiabank Centre. The rink was then full for the Canadian debut.

In Moncton, the secondary market, only single tickets remain for the U.S.-Finland showdown on New Year’s Eve.

It wasn’t the same story for non-Canada games when Hockey Canada went to Toronto and Montreal (twice!) in the past 10 years. The summer world juniors in Edmonton this year also attracted mostly sparse crowds (though the dates, ticket prices and the Hockey Canada scandal all played a role in keeping crowds low in a city that usually would be all in for the event).

Considering what a disaster Hockey Canada has been this year, it owes plenty of thanks to its Maritime hosts for showing such strong support for the tournament.

Other possibilities for non-NHL host markets for Canada include London, Ont. (with Kitchener or Windsor) and Quebec City (with Shawinigan, Victoriaville or Sherbrooke).

Or, if you want to get creative (see the 2026 Mexico-United States-Canada men’s soccer World Cup), how about Detroit with London or Windsor, Buffalo with Hamilton (once its arena is renovated) or St. Catharines. Ont., or Seattle with Victoria or Abbotsford, B.C.

Up next for Canada

Canada faces Germany on Wednesday.

Germany opens its tournament on Tuesday afternoon against Sweden.

The Germans went 2-2 in Edmonton in the first round before losing 5-2 to Finland in the quarterfinals.

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