By Lori Bennett
The 2023 IIHF World Junior Championship, held in Moncton and Halifax, delivered some of the best holiday season hockey we have seen in years. Fans enjoyed watching generational talent Connor Bedard destroy records, a couple of entertaining upsets and, of course, a rousing performance by the home team. But it didn’t start perfectly.
Team Canada entered the tournament as the favourites, but it got a little dicey when they dropped the first game of the preliminary round on Boxing Day to Czechia. Fortunately, they pulled it together for blow out wins over Germany and Austria, and a celebratory New Year’s Eve win over Sweden.
The quarterfinal was a much tighter contest, but it was Bedard who surfaced as the hero. The phenom, who is the unanimous favourite to be selected first overall in the 2023 NHL Amateur Draft, had a goal and an assist in regulation, and then scored the overtime goal for the 4-3 win over Slovakia.
On Wednesday night in Halifax, Team Canada faced the United States in the semifinal match. The good guys fell behind early when Logan Cooley, the third overall pick of the 2022 draft, scored in the second minute of action. At the midway mark of the period the US struck again, and Team Canada was down by two. A minute later, it was Connor Bedard who got Canada going, scoring to cut the lead in half. The Canadians went to the intermission down by one goal thanks to a dynamic effort by goaltender Thomas Milic.
Canada dominated the second period, scoring three unanswered goals. They added two goals in the third, including an empty netter, for a final score of 6-2 in a game that was much closer than the scoreboard indicated. The game winner was scored by Adam Fantilli, who is expected to be selected early in the 2023 draft, with an assist from Newfoundlander Zach Dean. The hero award was split between Milic and Montreal Canadiens prospect Joshua Roy, who had two goals and two assists in the win.
Team Canada headed to the Gold Medal Game on Thursday against Czechia, with their sights set on redeeming themselves, their only loss in the preliminary round having come against Czechia. Following that loss, alternate captain Dylan Guenther assessed that the team was trying to win on individual skilled efforts rather than playing as a team and winning battles.
Guenther said, “We’re not going to ‘Michigan’ our way to the final.”
He was referring to two unsuccessful attempts by his teammates, Connor Bedard and Adam Fantilli, to score the lacrosse-style goal known as ‘the Michigan’.
On Thursday night, Jan. 5 in Halifax, it was Guenther who opened the scoring for Canada midway through the first period with a one-timer from the face-off dot on the power play. Then in the second he assisted on a goal by Shane Wright, who was celebrating his 19th birthday, to give Canada a two goal lead.
Canada looked like they had the game in hand when Czechia came back to tie it, scoring two goals a minute apart in the third and causing the fans some anxious moments.
Overtime was necessary to solve it. At 6:22 of the extra frame, playing three-on-three hockey, it was Guenther again. On a give and go play with Brennan Othmann who was also celebrating his birthday, Guenther finished for the golden goal.
With the exciting overtime win, Team Canada secured its 20th World Juniors championship. Team Czechia, whose players were visibly upset, proved a worthy opponent.
Two of your favourite NHL teams kicked off 2023 on different tracks.
The Montreal Canadiens, who started the season with a much stronger performance than anyone predicted, made it to the middle of December playing .500 hockey. That wasn’t enough to get them in the playoff conversation, for sure, but it suggested the rebuild they have embarked upon may not be as lengthy as fans feared. But then the Habs went on a hellish road trip, and a 9-2 loss to the Washington Capitals on New Year’s Eve left them with a 15-19-3 record when the clock struck midnight.
The Habs opened the New Year on Tuesday in Nashville with a 6-3 loss. That left them at 1-8-1 in their last 10 games, and on a very clear decline in the standings. If there was any doubt before, it’s abundantly clear now that Montreal will be sellers at the March 3rd trade deadline. With Connor Bedard on full display at the World Juniors, fans are drooling over the possibility of winning the draft lottery and making him a Hab.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are a train on a completely different track. After a sloth-like start to the season, fans and pundits were calling for trades to shake things up. Many questioned whether Coach Sheldon Keefe would keep his job for the season, while others were certain GM Kyle Dubas would lose his in the off-season.
But then it was like lightning struck and its name was Mitch Marner. On the strength of an outstanding individual performance, the Leafs turned their season around. They ended 2022 with a 23-8-6 record and planning the parade route is back on in Toronto. For their first game of 2023, the Leafs came back from a two-goal deficit to the St. Louis Blues to send the game to overtime. They ultimately lost in the shootout, but it was a bump in the road for the team in third place in the Eastern Conference.
While the Canadiens are identifying the players available for sale, the Maple Leafs are confirmed buyers. In the weeks ahead, Dubas will identify his targets to make his team playoff ready. A defenseman was the presumed target, but the group has performed well of late. Depth scoring is always on the wish list, and to everyone’s surprise the net seems secure. Perhaps a Stanley Cup winner that could bring some leadership to the room would be the best target to get the Leafs over the first round hump
The other team mid-season in Toronto is not faring as well as the Leafs. After a decent start, the Raptors have fallen hard.
On Wednesday night the Raptors began a six-game homestand against the Milwaukee Bucks. They entered the game having 37 games under their belt with a record of 16-21 and outside of the playoff picture. Salvaging the season was hanging on a strong performance at home. The outcome of the first game was an overtime loss.
The February 9th trade deadline is looming large, and president Masai Ujiri and GM Bobby Webster have all eyes on their young team and will have to decide whether they will be deadline sellers. If they can’t string some wins together, a blow-up may be upcoming in Toronto and some of our favourites may be heading out.