The opening day of the 2023 World Junior Championship had started with an upset win by Switzerland over Finland, followed by a one-sided victory by Sweden over Austria, and then a match between the United States and Latvia that was tied through two periods before Team USA took over. The night came to a close with host nation Canada’s first game, versus 2022’s fourth place team, Czechia.
In the opening minutes, the two teams were just getting a feel for the play, but that quickly changed as they began to test the opposing defence for rush chances. The offensive play was ratcheted up a notch when Adam Fantilli attempted to jump to the top of draft boards with a lacrosse goal around the left side of the net. His NHL status probably wasn’t affected, but a miss only hurt his chance of going first overall in the NLL draft.
Looking for the opening goal, Czechia was getting the puck into the neutral zone, but aggressive play from one Canadian defenceman as the other hung back to cover cut off those rushes in the neutral zone.
The Czechs were first to put a puck in the net after getting the puck in deep for some chances around the net, but the goal was waved off as Gabriel Szturc had run into Canadian goaltender Benjamin Gaudreau, and the forward was sent to the box as a result.
On the power play, Shane Wright got his stick on a point shot to deflect it past the glove of Suchánek to give Canada the 1-0 lead.
In a bid for a second for the home side, Connor Bedard took inspiration from fellow 2023 draft prospect Fantilli and tried his Michigan goal to the right side of the net. He also failed on his attempt, and the NLL scouts were seen leaving the rink.
It appeared that Brandt Clarke had become the second NHL player loaned to Team Canada to score when his point shot got through into the net. But the Czechs challenged the play for offside, and it was determined that Joshua Roy had entered the zone before the puck, wiping out the goal.
It proved to be a critical decision later in the period as an excellent bit of interplay between defence partners Stanislav Svozil and David Špaček created the tying goal, as the former sent a great pass through the slot to the latter.
Thirty-five seconds later, it was another defenceman, David Moravec, putting Czechia in the lead, silencing what was already a quieted crowd in Halifax. The Czechs went to the dressing room suddenly in the lead, and Canada and the fans in attendance were stunned during the mid-game break.
If the home fans were expecting a turnaround in the second, they quickly discovered that the Czechs weren’t just going to sit on their one-goal lead. Less than a minute into the middle frame, Svozil and Špaček reversed their scoring play from the first, with Svozil getting a goal of his own.
Canada prevented things from getting completely out of hand just 45 seconds later when Bedard took advantage of plenty of open space after a neutral-zone turnover to get off his exceptional shot and net his first goal of the tournament.
In his efforts to keep momentum on Canada’s side, Zach Dean threw a big hit in the corner on Ales Cech, but got his hands high in the process and knocked his man to the ice. The play was reviewed, and the officials decided it was worth a match penalty, ejecting Dean from the game and sending Czechia to a five-minute power play.
Canada nearly tied the game as it got two penalty-killers behind the opposition, but they couldn’t catch up to the puck to get a shot. Czechia came right back up the ice afterward, and a rebound from a Chmelař shot popped up into the air off Gaudreau, and Chmelař was allowed to stick with the play and knock the puck in.
Still on the power play, Czechia came into the zone on a rush, and a relatively harmless shot from Matouš Menšík caught Gaudreau off his angle. The puck went off Gaudreau’s side and into the net, and that was the last action the goaltender saw on the night.
Joshua Roy drew a penalty by forcing his way to the crease and getting wrestled down for going so near the Czech goaltender. Canada looked dangerous on the power play, but Suchánek used some desperation to keep the puck out of his net until Canada took a penalty to negate the advantage.
Unable to answer the two goals scored on Dean’s major penalty, the Canadians headed to the dressing room facing an even bigger deficit than they had after the opening 20 minutes.
Two-and-a-half minutes into the third period, Canada had another chance on the power play to get back into the game. Canada tried to set up a chance to the slot, and managed to get one look that they wanted, but the power play didn’t have the urgency the situation required to ensure the advantage was capitalized upon, generating just one shot on goal.
Canada had some shots as the period wore on, but the Czechs were managing to keep the game played fairly evenly, a credit to a team that could have decided to go into a shell in its own slot and try to survive the remaining minutes. They didn’t allow Canada to settle into a persistent attack, and the minutes drained off the clock.
With six minutes to play, Canada was sent to the box for knocking the stick out of the hands of Czech player, making a tough comeback seem even more unlikely with two minutes of four-on-five action. Again, the Czechs didn’t simply treat it as a two-minute break, but actively sought a sixth goal to keep Canada on its heels.
Once the clock read four minutes to play, replacement goaltender Thomas Milic was recalled to the bench for an extra attacker. After failing to get a goal, Canada once again went to the penalty kill in the dying moments, allowing the Czechs to see out the game with some easy seconds playing keepaway in Canada’s zone.