After 20 of 28 scheduled games, quarterfinal Saturday is when the World Juniors tournament comes into focus.
Canada faces its first do-or-die test this afternoon against the Czech Republic (5 p.m. on TSN).
“There's no way we'll take them lightly,” said Canada coach Andre Tourigny of his team’s quarterfinal opponents.
"They block a ton of shots, so we'll need to be really quick in transition,” he said. "They're a really good five-on-five team.”
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Canada looked strong in its New Year’s Eve clash against Finland, dominating the game from the start en route to a 4-1 victory to claim first in Pool A.
But Tourigny cautions against drawing too much from one game
"We had a really good game ... four days before, and against the Slovakians many people were asking because we were up only 2-1 in the third period.”
The Czechs finished fourth of five teams in a tough Pool B, but managed to upset a strong Russian team 2-0 in their second game.
“The Czechs did us a favour by beating the Russians and showing how good they can be,” said Tourigny.
Canada has won four of the last five meetings, including two elimination round games, against the Czechs by a cumulative 28-12 score.
'WE CAN PLAY WITH EVERYONE'
Inconsistency has dogged this year’s Czech team throughout the preliminary round.
They bookended their Russia win by being outscored 7-1 by Sweden and then shutout 7-0 by the United States.
They then looked sluggish at the opening of their last Pool B game before overwhelming Austria 7-0.
“I think we need to play the same game like we played today,” said Czech goaltender Nick Malik after the victory.
The Czechs have nine returning players, the most of any team in the tournament.
“We go to every game and every tournament with a winning mentality. We want to win every single game,” said Czech head coach Karel Mlejnek.
Malik has a simpler strategy to pull the upset.
“Play good hockey. Don’t be nervous,” he said. “We can play with everyone.”
Quarterfinals at the World Juniors are pressure-packed games as medal contenders face elimination for the first time in the tournament.
Last year, Canada trounced Slovakia 6-1, while the Czechs were on the wrong end of a 5-0 shutout to Sweden.
Canada last played the Czech Republic in the quarterfinal round in 2017, winning 5-3 on the back of two Julien Gauthier goals.
Winner of 12 of 15 quarterfinal games, Canada is nonetheless wary that elimination games turn on the narrowest of margins.
Two years ago against Finland in Vancouver, Canadian captain Max Comtois couldn’t convert a penalty shot in overtime.
Minutes later, defenceman Noah Dobson looked poised to drive home the overtime winner before his stick shattered.
The Finns counter-attacked and defenceman Toni Utunen's wrist shot eliminated Team Canada before a crestfallen crowd.
"We lost a heartbreaker,” Team Canada 2019 and 2020 defenceman Ty Smith told CTV last year. “We had chances to beat that team and they went on to win it all,” he said of the eventual gold medallist Finns.
“It just shows how tight the tournament is.”