The final scene of the World Junior Hockey Championship is set for Thursday night with most of the same actors it had on opening night, but Canada hopes to re-write the ending.
Canada and Czechia will meet in the gold medal game, a rematch of their Boxing Day matchup, which Canada lost 5-2. And that wasn’t a fluke. The better team won that night. The Czechs have also been the better team so far in this tournament – the only team to get to ten points in the preliminary round, winning group A.
On Wednesday night in the semifinals, Canada fell behind 2-0 to the Americans, then scored 6 unanswered goals for a 6-2 victory.
While the scoreboard might hint at a blowout, describing the game that way would be a lie. Canada had to lean heavily on goalie Thomas Milic, who was absolutely fantastic, making 43 saves. Understanding that scouting is an inexact science, it’s still remarkable to think that less than six months ago, 225 players were selected in the 2022 NHL Draft and none of them was named Thomas Milic.
Milic is the only player on Canada’s roster that was passed over in the draft, but in a do-or-die against our biggest rival, he was the one the Halifax crowd of 10,636 was cheering for at the end when he was named the player of the game.
“It was incredible. Definitely the coolest moment of my hockey career and maybe my life,” Milic told TSN. “It’s awesome have that much support back home (in B.C.) and all across Canada too.”
Nepean’s Brandt Clarke had 2 points in the game and continues to have a fine tournament, with 6 points in as many games. Like everyone on his team, Clarke is shocked that Milic doesn’t have an NHL team yet.
“That’s a mistake by all 32 teams that he’s not in an organization at the moment,” said Clarke. “He’s resilient, just like everyone else in that dressing room. When he got his shot, he knew he’d run with it.”
With two goals and two assists, Jonathan Roy was the offensive star for Canada, giving phenom Connor Bedard a night off from that moniker.
And Canada’s third star had to be Dennis Williams’s use of the coach’s challenge.
Canada challenged two American goals that were both overturned due to goalie interference. The second one early in the third period was fairly obvious, with the Americans shoving Milic’s pad into the net with the puck. But the first one would have tied the game at 3 in the second period and was extremely controversial.
The referee’s announcement of the decision didn’t help matters. For a brief moment, Anssi Salonen seemed to be announcing a call that favoured the Americans. He announced, “After video review, there is a goal… (pause)…tender interference.”
The ruling did not go over particularly well with fans south of the border.
In the other semifinal Wednesday, the Czechs were down 1-0 and 39 seconds away from being eliminated by Sweden. But with their goalie pulled for an extra attacker, David Jiricek scored the tying goal to force overtime. Jiri Kulich then won it for the Czechs with 50 seconds left in OT.
This will be the Czechs first World Junior final appearance since 2001 and they enter Thursday’s game knowing they can beat Canada because they just did it 10 days ago. But this time they’ll be facing Milic, the hottest goalie in the tournament, and a fully focused Canadian side that now knows how good they are.
By Steve Warne