Canada did not have a great team this year at the World Junior Hockey Championship presented in Sweden, but it would have deserved to at least fight for a medal in the semi-finals.
The Canadians return home with a fifth place, cruelly defeated 3-2 by the Czech Republic on Tuesday in the quarter-finals. Canada is therefore excluded from the final four for only the fourth time in its history, after winning gold in 2022 and 2023.
It’s hard to imagine a worse twist of fate: With 11 seconds left in the game, 18-year-old Jakub Stancl, a fourth-round pick of the St. Louis Blues, took a harmless shot. The puck deflects off two opposing sticks, hits the inside of the post before lodging in the back of the net.
The last one to touch the puck? Canadian defenseman Oliver Bonk, son of former Czech hockey player Radek Bonk. You can not make that up…
But let’s not blame it all on bad luck. The Canadian team got itself into trouble by allowing two goals to the Czechs in the first period, with an ineffective forecheck and its inability to stifle opposing counterattacks in the neutral zone.
The Canadian team was not facing a power. Despite the presence of the top scorer in the American League, Jiri Kulich, the Czech Republic had nothing of its formation from last year, finalist against Canada, with the loss of its trio of experienced defenders of David Jiricek, David Spacek and Stanislav Svozil.
Czechia was crushed 6-2 by Slovakia in its first match, beat Switzerland with difficulty 4-2, but nevertheless pushed the Americans into overtime.
Canada was obviously deprived of its best elements. Connor Bedard alone would have completely changed the game. Add to that the absence of Adam Fantilli, Zach Benson, Shane Wright and defender Kevin Korchinski, retained in the professional ranks, not to mention the loss of his best defender, Tristan Luneau, at the start of the tournament, and you have find yourself with an ordinary club.
The Canadian team is nevertheless deprived of important elements each year and still manages to distinguish itself. This time, the offensive leaders, Matthew Poitras, Matthew Savoie, Conor Geekie and Jordan Dumais did not produce. The top scorer, Macklin Celebrini, eight points in five games, is 17 years old. The second, Brayden Yager, five points, played on a third line with Celebrini…
Canada scored 16 goals against Latvia and Germany, but only seven against Finland, Sweden and Czechia, including one in an empty net.
We still allowed ourselves to leave some talent behind. Andrew Cristall, 18, a 2023 second-round pick of the Washington Capitals, has 59 points in just 29 games in the Western Junior League. Quentin Musty, a late first-round pick of the San Jose Sharks that same year, had 41 points in 23 games in the Ontario Junior League.
Forward Matthew Wood, first-round pick, 15th overall by Nashville in 2023, was content with one or two appearances per game during preliminary round meetings. He scored in his second appearance against the Czech Republic before being used extensively thereafter. Wrong review?
The leaders of the Canadian team opted for a stronger defense, but less offensively gifted. Jake Furlong’s second-period goal was the second by a Canadian defenseman of the tournament. The first was counted in an empty net.
There should be no shortage of reviews over the coming days.