If there was even a shred of lingering doubt in Alexis Lafrenière’s mind about the health of his knee, he took care of it quickly.
Having missed the past two games after crumpling to the ice and grabbing his left leg in agony last weekend, Canada’s star winger pasted an opponent into the glass with a solid check on his first shift Thursday.
And once the team killed off a questionable five-minute major early, Lafrenière and the rest of his country’s highly skilled teenage roster went to work.
The projected No. 1 pick in the 2020 NHL draft returned from injury to set up the opening goal before scoring one of his own on a bullet shot, propelling Canada into the semi-finals at the world junior hockey championship with a 6-1 victory over Slovakia.
Canada will play defending champion Finland in the semi-finals while Russia will take on Sweden.
Lafrenière’s participation at the under-20 tournament looked to be in serious doubt when he was helped off the ice last Saturday after an awkward fall.
Now it’s game on with Canada two wins away from its 18th gold medal.
“He’s obviously not 100 per cent,” defenceman Jacob Bernard-Docker said. “Still a little bit hurt, he’s still the best player out there. It’s really nice to have him back.”
The Canadians will meet Finland in one of Saturday’s semis after the defending champions upset the United States 1-0 in a rematch of last year’s final.
Lafrenière suited up against Slovakia after missing last two games with the knee injury suffered in a humiliating 6-0 setback to Russia, the national program’s worst defeat in the under-20 tournament’s 44-year history.
But the 18-year-old from Saint-Eustache, Que., who has 70 points in 32 games with the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Rimouski Oceanic, watched practice less than 24 hours later minus a knee brace or noticeable limp.
“It was scary a little bit,” Lafrenière said. “But after I felt good.”
The reigning CHL Player of the Year took part in Canada’s skate on Wednesday before the official all-clear was announced a few hours later.
“He looked like he was back to himself again,” head coach Dale Hunter said.
Asked about Lafrenière’s physical side, the veteran of 19 hard-fought NHL seasons said it’s an underrated part of his game.
“No one thinks that he does that,” Hunter said. “He scores, he gets points. But he finishes checks, plays the right way.”
Barrett Hayton added two goals and an assist for the Canadians against Slovakia, Bernard-Docker, Connor McMichael and Liam Foudy also scored, and Joel Hofer made 17 saves for his third straight win in his third consecutive start. Dylan Cozens, Jamie Drysdale and Calen Addison each added two assists.
Oliver Okuliar replied for the overmatched Slovaks, who had been shut out in their past three games against Canada at the world juniors. Samuel Hlavaj allowed six goals on 30 shots before getting the hook early in the third period.
Most observers predicted the Canadians would automatically get a semi-final rematch with Russia, which beat Switzerland 3-1 earlier Thursday. But they instead had to wait to find out their next opponent because the International Ice Hockey Federation recently changed its medal-round format – and neglected to update the official website – to a setup that sees teams reseeded based on rankings at the event.
In the day’s other quarter-final, Sweden defeated the host Czech Republic 5-0 to book a date with the Russians on Saturday.
Lafrenière started on Canada’s top line with Hayton and Nolan Foote.
But Foote was promptly assessed a five-minute major and a game misconduct for a check to the head/neck area on Slovakia’s Kristian Kovacik just 53 seconds in at Ostravar Arena.
It appeared the Tampa Bay Lightning first-rounder’s principal points of contact were the shoulder and upper back of Kovacik, who eventually returned to the game, as the Slovak stretched for the puck.
Sporting their black jerseys for a second straight game, the Canadians killed the penalty, with Hofer making a big save off the rush.
“It was a tough way to start,” said Bernard-Docker, an Ottawa Senators’ prospect. “But I think it gave our group a lot of energy.”
Canada grabbed the lead shortly thereafter when Cozens, who replaced Foote on the No. 1 trio, pressured the puck and Lafrenière passed quickly in front to Hayton for his team-leading fourth goal at the world juniors.
“He’s a good skater,” Hunter said of Cozens. “He can get on the forecheck. He surprised the defenceman.”
Hlavaj – statistically the QMJHL’s best goalie in 2019-20 with the league-leading Sherbrooke Phoenix – did his best to keep the Slovaks in the game, but Canada scored four times in the middle period.
McMichael bagged his third on a 2-on-1, Bernard-Docker added his first after a nice toe-drag around a sliding defender, and Foudy made a slick move on a breakaway for his third to make it 4-0.
Canada, which suffered a devastating overtime defeat at this stage of the tournament to the Finns in Vancouver last year, then went to the power play, with Lafrenière, who now has six points in slightly more than seven periods of action, taking a pass in the high slot and wiring his second.
“Right away he’s making an impact,” said Cozens, who had six points of his own in Canada’s past two games. “He’s always a threat.”
“Sometimes you’re shaking your head at the stuff he can do,” Bernard-Docker added. “It’s really special.”
Canada scored its sixth one minute into the third on another man advantage when Hayton buried his fifth to end Hlavaj’s afternoon. Samuel Vyletelka came on in relief and finished with 14 saves.
Okuliar, who plays on the same line as Cozens with the WHL’s Lethbridge Hurricanes, broke the shutout bid when he blasted a shot past Hofer, but there was no dampening Canadian spirits.
“It was a good game for us,” Lafrenière said. “I felt good.”
He looked even better.
FINLAND 1, U.S. 0
Reigning gold medalist Finland will face Canada in a semi-final at the world junior hockey championship after beating the United States 1-0.
In a rematch of last year’s final, Finland’s Joonas Oden one-timed Kristian Tanus’s pass past American goalie Spencer Knight on a power play early in the third for the game’s lone goal.
Finland goaltender Justus Annunen stopped all 30 American shots.
The U.S. outshot Finland 30-29.
Finland is looking to become the first team to win consecutive titles since Canada won five in a row from 2005 to 2009.
Sweden faces Russia in the other semi-final. Both semis are Saturday with the medal games on Sunday.
RUSSIA 3, SWITZERLAND 1
Dmitri Voronkov scored two goals as Russia knocked off Switzerland in the first quarter-final.
Russia needs one more win to capture its ninth medal in the past 10 world juniors. The Russians haven’t won gold since 2011.
Competing in a tight Group B, Russia needed a win over Germany in the preliminary-round finale to avoid a trip to the relegation round. The Russians crushed the Germans 6-1 and maintained their momentum against the Swiss, who finished fourth last year after upsetting Sweden in the quarter-finals.
Russia outshot Switzerland 36-15.
Alexander Khovanov also scored for Russia, while Gaetan Jobin had the lone Swiss goal.
SWEDEN 5, CZECH REPUBLIC 0
Vancouver Canucks prospect Nils Hoglander had two goals and an assist as Sweden rolled to victory over the host team.
Victor Soderstrom, Hugo Gustafsson and David Gustafsson also scored for the Swedes.
Goaltender Hugo Alnefelt notched a 23-save shutout for the Swedes, who had 37 shots.
Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Rasmus Sandin had two assists after suffering a minor arm injury in his previous game.
It was Sweden’s 11th straight win over the Czech Republic at the world juniors.
Germany took a 1-0 lead in the best-of-three relegation series with a 4-0 win over Kazakhstan.
Hendrik Hane stopped 23 shots for the shutout.
Lukas Reichel, Louis Brune, John-Jason Peterka and Dominik Bokk scored for Germany.
Game 2 is Saturday.
The winner will play in next year’s world juniors in Edmonton and Red Deer, Alta., along with the eight 2020 quarter-finalists and Austria, which won the promotion tournament.