Both teams came in with game plans, but only one would follow orders. In a fascinating world junior semifinal, Canada beat Sweden 5-2, getting emergency goaltending from Carter Hart and suckering the Swedes into deviating from their style.
Sweden came in as the one of the best teams in the tourney and did so through sublime skill and speed. But when Canada came out hitting, the Tre Kronor kids couldn't help but get pulled into a physical battle and it turned out to be their undoing.
“We wanted to get in on the forecheck and disrupt what they were doing by being physical," said Tampa Bay pick Anthony Cirelli. "We wanted to get pucks to the net and play a simple game.”
And while they did that, the Swedes got their backs up, throwing some big hits themselves, but also taking some unnecessary penalties. Canada capitalized and by the third period, the ice had tilted much too far in the Canucks' favor.
“Yeah, we didn’t play with the patience that we did before," said Toronto pick Carl Grundstrom. "We were prepared to play physical, so it’s hard to say. We didn’t feel we got the pressure we wanted."
The game got off to an incredibly different start, however. The Swedes fired two soft goals past starter Connor Ingram (TB) on their first three shots, prompting a change to Hart, the Flyers prospect. Hart was the consensus starter before the tourney, but saw Ingram take over the lion's share of the work once action began. All Hart did against the Swedes was shut out the most potent offense in the tournament the rest of the way.
“I was pretty lucky that it was only five minutes into the game," he said. "My gloves were still a little sweaty from warmups, so it wasn’t too bad; I wasn’t too cold.”
Cirelli was another hero. he and linemate Mitchell Stephens erased two separate Swedish leads early on when Canada was pinned by Ingram's gaffes. Once the home side got in gear behind Hart, however, they were the dominant team.
“Everyone was sacrificing their bodies and we had a couple big blocks in the game," Hart said. "I play with Noah Juulsen in Everett and he had a couple big ones, which I’m used to. We came out checking and grinded it out for the full 60 minutes.”
Juulsen, the Montreal pick, had his best game of the tourney by far, setting the tone early with some big hits. Dylan Strome (ARI) also played at his highest level yet and was rewarded with a goal, as was big Julien Gauthier (CAR), who potted two, including an empty netter.
Canada now moves on to face Team USA in the final, the only squad to beat them so far. With Hart riding high in net and the Canadians playing their best game since dismantling the Russians on Boxing Day, the home side will have a lot of momentum. But the Americans are the last undefeated squad in the tourney and have just as much skill and grit. There will be fireworks, folks.