REGINA – Canada has won five straight world junior championships thanks in part to its intimidating physical play.
This year, it seems other countries are taking notice.
Jordan Eberle scored the winning goal as Canada edged the Czech Republic 3-2 in a chippy world junior exhibition game Wednesday night.
Canada’s three warm-up games for the junior championship, which starts Dec. 26., have had a lot of physical play. That comes as no surprise to Eberle, who says other countries are looking to emulate Canada’s system for success at the world junior level.
“I think people see we’ve done so well and they’re trying to match how we play,” Eberle said. “We have to be prepared for that and counter it.”
Eberle, a local star who plays for the Western Hockey League’s Regina Pats, leads Canada in pre-competition scoring with five points (two goals, three assists) in three games.
Taylor Hall scored for the third time in three world junior pre-competition games and Gabriel Bourque also had a goal for Canada, which scored all its goals in the second half of the second period.
Tomas Vincour, who plays for the WHL’s Edmonton Oil Kings, and Jan Kana replied for the Czech Republic.
Like Sweden and Finland before them, the Czechs didn’t shy away from physical activity against Canada. Hall, who suffered a minor knee injury against Sweden when he was knocked down in front of the Swedish goal, was levelled twice in the first period.
Czech defenceman Radko Gudas was also throwing his weight around with big hits on Canada’s Brandon McMillan and Jordan Caron.
“The Czechs are a good team. You look at the other night, they beat the USA,” Eberle said. “We knew it was going to be a hard-fought match. They were playing physical and getting in our faces and it’s something we’re not used to with them so it was a little surprising but we responded well.”
Canada outshot the Czechs 15-5 in the first period and had several excellent chances, but goaltender Pavel Francouz stopped them all with even better saves and a hot glove hand.
“He played great,” Eberle said of Francouz. “Any time you get a goalie like that you just need to get pucks to the net.”
Francouz had some help from his teammates to keep the game scoreless at the start of the second. After another great stop left him out of position, defenceman Jaroslav Kruzik bailed him out when he slid through Francouz’s crease and saved a goal.
Francouz robbed Nazem Kadri on the next shift, and when the play went to the other end Vincour redirected captain Michal Jordan’s point shot past Canadian goaltender Jake Allen.
Canada then responded with a three-goal explosion – one even strength, one short-handed and one on the power play.
After highlight reel goals against both Sweden and Finland, it was Hall who got the scoring started for Canada with another pretty effort.
Hall, Canada’s youngest player and the projected top draft pick in the 2010 NHL entry draft, was sent in on a partial breakaway by Alex Pietrangelo and, after fighting off the Czech defender, shoulder faked left and went right.
Francouz made the initial save, but this time there was no one around to keep Hall from banging in his own rebound. Hall now leads the team with three goals in pre-competition play.
“Yeah, I scored in three straight games but I’m also proud of the fact that I wasn’t on for a goal against,” Hall said. “I think that’s pretty big on Team Canada. Any time you can be a good player in both zones, (Canadian coach Willie Desjardins) is going to rely on you.”
Bourque put Canada up 2-1 short-handed when he stepped over the blue-line and wired a wrist shot behind Francouz.
“Tonight that was the difference, us scoring that short-handed goal really broke the game open,” coach Desjardins said.
With less than a minute remaining in the second, Eberle made it a 3-1 game when he banged in a Ryan Ellis rebound during a power play. Kadri earned his fourth assist in pre-competition play on the goal.
The Czechs got one back midway through third when Knotek threw the puck in front and it went in off Kana to make it 3-2, but it was as close as they would come.
Overall, Desjardins said he was happy with his team’s pre-competition play, but added nothing really matters until Boxing Day.
“I though we were pretty good on both power play and penalty kill, that probably made a difference in the games we played,” Desjardins said. “I think our goaltending has been real good, real solid for us. But it’s all new now. It doesn’t really matter what we did in those games, it’s coming up now that we have to play.”