BUFFALO — Members of the Swedish team had little time to celebrate their semifinal victory against the United States before contemplating the idea of facing off against Canada for gold at the 2018 world junior hockey championship.
That possibility became a reality, perhaps a harsh one for the Swedes, when Canada crushed the Czech Republic 7-2 at the KeyBank Center in a semifinal on Thursday night.
“Really tough team to play,” Sweden forward Alexander Nylander said. “We have to play a full 60 minutes and be prepared. They are going to come out hard at us.”
Sweden learned as much a year ago when Canada triumphed in a semifinal in Montreal, beating Sweden 5-2.
When Canada and Sweden hook up in the gold-medal game on Friday night, it will mark the first such meeting between the nations since 2009. Canada beat Sweden that year in Ottawa; it was a repeat of 2008, when Canada got past Sweden in the title game in the Czech Republic.
In the history of the world junior, Canada and Sweden have clashed in the gold-medal game five times. Canada has won every time.
“They have a lot of skill and they are playing well,” Canada coach Dominique Ducharme said about the Swedes. “There’s a reason they are in the final.
“They won a big game (against the U.S.). They’re going to be ready.”
Captain Dillon Dube is among seven returning players from the team that lost in the gold-medal game to the United States last winter. What would a gold mean to Dube after that experience?
“It’s hard to explain,” Dube said. “The guys who are returning, what (we) went through last year was tough, but I think that’s good, it gives us more motivation and it would be unbelievable (to win gold). But I don’t want to get too ahead of ourselves here and just really focus on the first period (Friday). My mindset from the start of the year was to get back here and have that opportunity.”
… Against the Czechs, the Canadians regrouped with ease after blue-chip 2018 NHL draft prospect Filip Zadina undressed Kale Clague and went high on goaltender Carter Hart six minutes into the game. The Czechs didn’t threaten much again, certainly not while the teams were at even-strength, and Canada rolled. The Zadina goal marked the first time in the tournament Canada was behind during a game … Czech coach Filip Pesan was asked on Wednesday the keys to beating Canada and these were the first words out of his mouth:
“We can’t take stupid penalties.”
The message got lost somewhere, as Canada, already with a 2-1 lead on a pair of power-play goals, were gifted another man advantage when Radim Salda roughed up Maxime Comtois early in the second. Drake Batherson, who completed a hat trick late in the middle period, quickly scored his second of the game with Salda in the box. That, more or less, was it for the Czechs … Josef Korenar was a nice story in the Czech net when he made 51 saves against Finland in a 4-3 win in the quarterfinals on Tuesday. The Canadians ate Korenar for lunch, sending him to the bench after scoring six goals on 23 shots. Jakub Skarek entered the game in goaltending relief after Batherson’s third goal … There has been some line of questioning in Canada’s post-game scrums about whether the group has faced enough stiff competition, the kind that could come in the final. Why that might be an issue has not been explained. In the past, Canada has not necessarily needed to face adversity in order to win gold. There have been no true rough spots for this group — the outdoor game was a one-off, considering the unique conditions — and there’s a solid chance it gets by Sweden on Friday unscathed. Canada is the favourite going in, no matter what level of competition it has had since the tournament started … Attendance was 6,941 for the game, and thousands of empty seats throughout the event don’t make it a success. That organizers tried to suggest on Thursday that all is well was laughable.
FROM THE HASH MARKS
Defenceman Victor Mete returned to the lineup after missing the quarterfinal win against Switzerland and was sturdy, playing 21 minutes 24 seconds, the second-most ice time among Canadians. Mete helped keep Zadina in check as Canada took the game over. On loan from the Montreal Canadiens, Mete has played in 27 games for the Habs this season. What’s more special, his first NHL game or his first gold-medal game at the world junior?
“They’re both up there,” Mete said. “I would say probably the medal game just because you only have one chance at this, pretty much. I’ve been through quite a bit this year. I would say I don’t really feel any pressure going into it. We’re all really excited.”
… Three players on Canada’s roster — forwards Alex Formenton, Robert Thomas and Comtois — are eligible to play in the 2019 world junior in Vancouver and Victoria. It’s the fewest number of possible returnees for Canada since 2005, when only Sidney Crosby and Cam Barker were eligible to play the following year … Canada has won gold at the world junior 16 times, most recently in Toronto in 2015.