Can Slovakia cope?

Canada is the overwhelming favourites, but they still have to out and win the game. Photo: Richard Wolowicz / HHOF-IIHF Images

Canada overwhelming favourites in semis

There is no way to sugarcoat it—Canada will have to implode in unimaginable ways if it’s going to lose the semi-final game against Slovakia tonight in Toronto.

“It can’t be worse than the first time,” Slovak forward Martin Reway said bluntly. “That was the first game for all of us, and for some guys it was their first year in the World Juniors. They were pretty nervous. I think our performance from the first game to this one [against the Czechs], is getting better and better. So we’re a different team right now.”

The “first time” refers to opening night, Boxing Day, when Canada thumped the Slovaks 8-0. And, in truth, the Slovaks have won three out of the last four games they played after that, including a dramatic and impressive 3-0 win over the favoured Czech Republic two days ago.

The problem for Reway and Co. is that Canada has also improved since that 8-0 win, notably Connor McDavid, who started off slowly but has been perhaps the best player in the tournament over the last two or three games.

Canada has been the best team in the tournament so far at the 2015 World Juniors, outscoring the opposition 29-4 and winning all five games. It has a balanced attack featuring two dominant lines, and a defence that has size and skill.

Four of the top nine scorers in the tournament are Canadian, starting with Sam Reinhart, whose nine points ties him for the lead. Nic Petan is right behind with eight, and is tied for the lead in assists with seven, while Max Domi and McDavid have seven points each playing on different lines.

Six of the top seven leaders in the plus-minus are Canadian, Reinhart leading the way with a +10. Canada has scored seven power-play goals so far, the Slovaks but one. Incredibly, Canada has surrendered only 99 shots in its five games while the Slovaks are nearly double that number, 181.

Reway is the most important player on the Slovaks. His four goals represent 40 per cent of the entire team total of ten, and his six points leads the way for a team that is short on offence. In fact, however, two of Reway’s and the team’s goals came into empty nets, meaning the Slovaks have beaten an opposing goalie only eight times in five games.

There is no way to put a positive light on the Slovaks’ situation except to say that they have qualified for the semi-finals when not many people thought they would. But if players were intimidated by the crowd in the opener, wait until 19,000 ACC fans wearing red and white get into it tonight, with a gold-medal date on the line.

Canada is the better team in every aspect of the game and is sure to win, but the Slovaks can only hope they play the game of their lives and that the home side, in whatever fashion, falls flat. Perhaps goaltender Denis Godla will make a series of spectacular saves to keep the score close. Maybe the Canadians will run into penalty trouble, or get nervous themselves. Maybe Canadian goalie Zach Fucale will muff a couple of easy ones.

“The first game for most of our players was overwhelming here, because it’s a big arena,” Godla said. “I hope it’s going to be much better than the first game. We want to give them back what they took from us.”

Good luck with that.

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