IIHF: Team Canada Faces off with the Czechs at Worlds

potd-hockey_3290999kTeam Canada for Men’s Hockey arrived in Prague, Czech Republic this year with a big task at hand: After five straight disappointing quarter-final defeats at the world hockey championships, Canada wanted to make sure the sixth would not be an early exit. And they did that last night defeating Belarus in the quaterfinals Thursday. Team Canada Defenceman Brent Burns scored with only 27 seconds chipped away from the game, which for him would be a four-point night. Canada dominated in the 9-0 thrashing.

“We wanted to start quickly,” said coach Todd McLellan tp local media. “We thought that some of the games that the Belarusians won, they were comfortable early. Sometimes the plan doesn’t go as laid out, but tonight it did. We scored right on the very first shift then had some good shifts after that so we had a chance to push a team back that maybe wasn’t sure of themselves.”

The net-busting performance put Canada into the semifinals for the first time in six years. Next, Canada will face the home squad, Czech Republic. on Saturday afternoon, after the hosts beat Finland 5-3. “We had the opportunity to play a very hard game against the Czech team (in the preliminary round),” McLellan said. “Their advantage is playing in this building with their rabid fans behind them and the energy that they bring.” Canada steam-rolled through the preliminary round of the tournament with a perfect record but needed to avoid complacency heading into the playoffs, where one bad game can end a team’s gold-medal run. On Thursday, Team Canada’s fast start prevented just that. “That was one thing that we wanted to make sure that we did,” said Canadian defenceman Aaron Ekblad. “If you remember against Sweden (where Canada fell behind 3-0 in the first period), one of the main topics for us is to get a good start.”

In the first eight games, Canada now has a total of 58 goals in the tournament, which amounts to a new Canadian record since NHL players started participating in 1977. The record they broke? Canada scored 57 goals over 10 games in 1989. “It’s nice to put ourselves in a position to get to the finals,” said team captain Sidney Crosby. “The important thing is to get better every game and at this point you’ve got to be at your best. It’s win or go home, so we did a good job today.” Belarus played as hard as they could and even turned some heads as they reached the elimination round for the second straight year. “We got beat by an excellent team that has high skill, great coaching and the ability to win in different ways,” said Belarus coach Dave Lewis to media. He is a Canadian ironically enough, originally from Kindersley, Sask. “I told our players to forget this game. This game does not exist in their mind — I want it washed away. I’m proud of the group and I want the group to be proud of what they’ve done.”

“We’re under huge pressure,” – Jaromir Jagr

And they should be. as this Canadian team is not easy to play against. The best chances for Belarus came in the second period, when Mike Smith stopped 13 of the 24 shots he faced in the game. “It was great,” he said of his first shutout of the tournament. “I think we kind of got away from our gameplan a bit in the second period and they came at us a little bit. That’s a good team. If you give them chances, they can hurt you. We got back at it in the third and were able to get through, so we’re happy with the outcome.” So is Tyler Seguin who notched a hat trick. With his three, Seguin joined Sweden’s Filip Forsberg at the top of the worlds’ scoring chart with eight goals.

“We won by the margin because we kept playing our game,” Seguin said postgame. “We’re looking forward to the semifinal match.”

The Czechs though will prove a tougher challenge. The Czech Republic eliminated last year’s runner-up, Finland, 5-3. The Czech team’s Veteran, Jaromir Jagr, tied the game at 2 in the 2nd period with a backhand on a power play, and skated around the net to find a gap around Finn goalkeeper Pekka Rinne with 4:30 left in the final frame. The Czechs though have been downplaying their chances for a world title since 2010.

“We’re under huge pressure,” Jagr told media. “The fans consider us better than Canada. They’re excellent players. It could be they’ll never have such a great team at the worlds again. If they play their best, we have little chance. We can’t give them a bit of ice without fighting.”

The Czechs, have won six world titles in the past 20 years, and for almost every one they have relied largely on Jagr, a 43-year-old Florida Panthers winger, an NHL superstar, who scored twice on Thursday to lead his team past Finland in the quarter-finals. Another factor for Canada to consider is Prague’s O2 Arena which will be packed with more than 17,000 frantic fans. “The atmosphere is there, but it also means huge pressure,” said Jagr of the arena and home game. “The fans tend to see us as better than we really are, they think we are a much better team than Canada.”

Jagr, the fourth player on the NHL’s all-time points list led the Czechs to their last title in 2010, said Canada had an excellent team, but called them “playable.” “They are players like us. We have to go for it, respect them but give them nothing for free,” he said pregame. “You can’t go twelve rounds boxing with them, you have to try to knock them out in the first.”

Canada and the Czech Republic are due to face off at 1315 GMT on Saturday.

Our Pick: Canada beats the Czech 4-2