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Canada cutting it close in quest for gold at world juniors

Team Canada captain Dylan Strome (19) and teammates Jake Bean (2), Mitchell Stephens (27) and Kale Clague (10) listen to head coach Dominique Ducharme during practice ahead of their quarter-final round match against the Czech Republic.


It isn't a rush job, thanks to the forgiving medal round at the world junior hockey championship, but Canada still needs a quick fix if it hopes to grab the gold medal in Montreal.

Through the first three games of the preliminary round in Toronto, the Canadians rolled along thanks to their power play, which scored eight goals in 14 opportunities, an astounding success rate of 57.1 per cent. Then it ran into the brick wall of the U.S. defensive game. In beating Canada 3-1 to finish first in Group B, the Americans allowed one goal on five Canadian power plays and that came on a 5-on-3 advantage, the Canadians' second of the game.

The trouble is, Canada was far less dynamic playing at even strength. The Canadians scored 12 goals at even strength in their four preliminary-round games and two of those games were against also-rans Slovakia and Latvia.

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Related: Canada prepared for quarter-final matchup at world juniors

Canada faces the Czech Republic in the quarter-finals at the Bell Centre on Monday. While the Czechs, who are no longer a junior power and finished third in Group A with a win, a loss and two overtime losses, are not expected to present much more opposition than, say, Slovakia, the Canadians know exactly what needs to be done.

"There is no secret," Canadian centre Dylan Strome said. "We have not been the best five-on-five team the whole tournament. We've been surviving on our power play. We have to find a way to create more. We have to find a way to be better."

That was probably what Canadian head coach Dominique Ducharme was talking about after last week's 5-0 win over Slovakia when he was asked if there was anything about his team he did not like. No, came the reply, but there are lots of areas where we can be better.

At the time, those areas included goaltending and the defence play after the top pair of Philippe Myers and Thomas Chabot. Neither of those areas is much better now that the medal round is here. One is actually worse, since Myers is out for probably the rest of the tournament with a concussion after being knocked into the boards by U.S. forward Luke Kunin.

But the most important task for the Canadians is to fix their attacking game before they get to the semi-finals. While the United States played a near-perfect defensive and counter-attacking game to beat Canada, and it can always be argued that is unlikely to happen twice in succession with teenagers, also lying ahead is Sweden, which showed few weaknesses in cruising to a 4-0 record and first place in Group A.

After the loss to the United States to close out the preliminary round, Ducharme picked up on a theme mentioned by a few of his players. If you're going to lose a game, better to do it in group play before the tournament goes to single-knockout mode.

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"Now we're starting a new tournament in Montreal," the coach said. "We'll be ready for that. We're confident. We are certainly in the race to be there at the end."

Funny thing, though. By the third period on Saturday, as the United States closed its grip on the game, the Canadians looked anything but confident. It was as though they gave up trying to penetrate the Americans' defensive game, sat back and kept firing the 30-foot shots that were blocked either by the U.S. defenders or their goaltender.

If Canada is to turn that loss into just a blip on the way to a gold medal, then the forwards have to forget about trying to be pretty or shooting from the perimeter in the vain hope something gets through. It is time to cycle the puck around the boards and start winning the battles for it.

"We have a lot of skill but we can play that hard, gritty game and cycle pucks down low," Canadian forward Tyson Jost said. "It's fun to watch and it's fun to play, too. When we're playing like that, it's really fun. We had spurts like that."

Ducharme, after saying all week he had no plans to change his lineup, decided Sunday a change in chemistry was in order. Strome, the No. 1 centre, practised between wingers Blake Speers and Jost while centre Nicolas Roy played with Pierre-Luc Dubois and Julien Gauthier.

Then again, when you're dealing with teenagers it can work the other way, too. U.S. head coach Bob Motzko reminded everyone of the 2014 tournament when the Americans went 3-1 in the preliminary round and then folded in the quarter-finals to Russia.

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"One thing we learned in 2014 is we were playing very well," Motzko said, "and then poof, it's over."

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