BUFFALO, N.Y. — Underselling your team's chances against Canada is becoming a popular tactic among coaches at the world junior hockey championship.
First, Swiss coach Christian Wohlwend predicted that Canada would crush his team two days before the Canadians routed Switzerland 8-2 in the tournament's quarterfinal. Now Czech coach Filip Pesan said it would take divine intervention for his team to beat Canada.
"Miracles can happen. We're going to be ready," said Pesan on Wednesday after practising at KeyBank Center.
Many of Canada's players thought that Wohlwend's criticisms of his Swiss team — the youngest at the tournament — was a ploy to motivate his players and lull the Canadians into a false sense of security. They see Pesan's declaration as more of the same.
"Another one?" said Canadian head coach Dominique Ducharme. "We're thinking about ourselves. That's not really original."
"I don't think they're giving themselves enough credit," added captain Dillon Dube. "I think they're trying to go pressure free throughout this whole thing. I think everybody's putting the pressure on Canada this year because we're a dominating team.
"Because we're the team coming out of Group A they're trying to put the pressure on us and wanting us to crack."
Pesan trying to sell the Czech Republic as underdogs against Canada is a bit of a stretch.
Although the Canadians rocked the Czech Republic 9-0 on Dec. 20 in a pre-tournament exhibition in London, Ont., it wasn't a true test. Canada was just days removed from its selection camp and without Dube or defenceman Dante Fabbro due to injury. The Czechs were missing several key players from their roster and were jetlagged, with most of the players having just arrived in North America.
Since then, the Czech Republic has impressed. They went 3-1-0 to finish second in Group B behind undefeated Sweden, with wins over Russia, Belarus and Switzerland. They also rallied to a 4-3 shootout win over Finland in their quarterfinal on Tuesday, largely thanks to goalie Josef Korenar's 51-save performance.
Korenar only played five minutes of Canada's 9-0 rout in the exhibition and faced no shots. Also missing from that game was Martin Necas, who is second in tournament points with three goals and six assists. Filip Zadina, who also missed the exhibition, has five goals and one assist, good for ninth in scoring at the event.
The Czech Republic also has the second best power-play unit at the world juniors, scoring 50 per cent of the time when it has a man advantage. The only country that has been better is Canada, with a 52.63 per cent success rate on the power play.
"They've got skills, we know that," said Ducharme. "Up front they have skills. They have guys that can make plays and shoot the puck. The best way to kill those penalties is to not take penalties."
The Canadians also feel they have evolved over the course of the tournament. A big help has been that Ducharme has not tinkered with his forward lines, letting chemistry build through familiarity. He's distributed ice time evenly as well, when possible.
"I think we're just going to need all four lines going," said Robert Thomas, who combined with linemates Taylor Raddysh and Boris Katchouk for four goals against the Czechs on Dec. 20. "We've shown that throughout the tournament, that all four lines can score. We're going to continue with that."
Defenceman Victor Mete, on loan from the Montreal Canadiens, was back on the ice for Canada's brief 30-minute practice Wednesday afternoon. Ducharme insisted Mete would be 100 per cent for the game after he missed the quarterfinal win with an undisclosed lower-body injury.
Carter Hart will start in net for Canada against the Czechs, although Ducharme implied that the goaltender won't continue his superstition of being the last off the ice at the end of periods. Hart had to wait nearly 10 minutes for Switzerland's backup goalie Matteo Ritz to leave the ice on Tuesday.
"That's over with, anyway," said Ducharme. "He's going to have a strong game tomorrow. Those things are fun to talk about, but it's behind him. He's ready to play tomorrow."
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John Chidley-Hill, The Canadian Press