By Stephen Whyno, The Canadian Press
TORONTO – After getting crushed by Canada 8-0 in the first game at the world junior championship, Slovakia’s players had a meeting. Forward Martin Reway’s message was simple.
“I say just: ‘It’s hard to not think about that game, but we’ve got to forget that game. The tournament just started and I still believe that we got a pretty good team,'” Reway recalled.
Slovakia was a good enough team to bounce back from losses to Canada and the United States to qualify for the knockout round and then beat the Czech Republic to advance to the semifinals. On paper, it’s the same team that was blown out of Bell Centre, but Canada’s players expect much more resistance in the semifinals Sunday night with a spot in the gold-medal game at stake.
“We don’t expect it to be a blowout like last time,” captain Curtis Lazar said. “They’ve got a great hockey club. We can’t take them lightly.”
Things have changed since the Boxing Day blowout, when Canada had 34 shots to Slovakia’s 12. In the process, Canada chased Slovak goaltender Denis Godla by scoring five goals on 23 shots.
In four starts since, Godla has allowed a total of six goals on 136 shots and shut out the Czechs in the quarter-finals.
“He’s been the best player so far for us,” Reway said. “I don’t see any reason why he can’t be the best goalie in the tournament. He was MVP for us as well, stopped so many shots for us. Even the last game he didn’t get scored on. It’s perfect timing for him for his tournament.”
It’s perfect timing because Godla is draft eligible this year and will get two more chances to impress in front of scouts, this time at Air Canada Centre. Whether the second one is in the gold- or bronze-medal game will have a lot to do with how Godla plays against Canada.
“He’s got to be perfect. He knows that,” Reway said. “But we’ve got to help him more than we did in the first game.”
No pressure, kid. Canada is coming off an 8-0 rout of Denmark in which seven different players scored.
This looks like a well-oiled machine, one that has also improved since the first Slovakia game.
“We’ve come a long way as a team,” defenceman Josh Morrissey said. “That was only our fourth game together at that time. Now we’ve had some big games and really nailed our systems down a lot more.”
Lazar said Canada is better in its defensive zone and in transition and has more chemistry. Some of that is happening on the fly, as Brayden Point will continue to play on the second line with Lazar and Connor McDavid after replacing the injured Robby Fabbri there against Denmark.
Point, who had been Canada’s 13th forward, doesn’t take anything away from Slovakia for how it played in the opener.
“That was their first game coming into a rink that was packed and cheering for our side,” Point said. “They’ve obviously gained some confidence over the tournament, and they’re a whole new team.”
Reway said most of the Slovak team had never played against competition like Canada before. He’s confident in his team’s improvement but is still justifiably wary of Canada’s depth.
“If you play against Czech or Finland, they got a few good players, but Canada every line can score,” said Reway, who’s a Montreal Canadiens prospect. “It must be the best performance from us for this tournament. I believe we got something to show. …
“They’re the best team in the tournament, that’s for sure. It’s going to be hard for us.”
Canadian coach Benoit Groulx, who confirmed Zach Fucale will start in goal against Slovakia, didn’t want to add to his own team’s hype when told of Reway’s assessment.
“For us it is only one game at a time and our goal is to prepare and focus on what we have to do and adapt to what other teams are throwing at us,” Groulx said. “It is something we have been doing pretty well so far, but tomorrow we have to start over again.”
One victory away from guaranteeing the first medal in this tournament since 2012, Canada’s players aren’t showing signs of feeling the pressure. It’s a business-like group, even for players aged 17 to 19, something Groulx credits to preparation and routine.
“They know exactly what to do. They are a very confident group,” Groulx said. “When you look at them, they take care of a lot of things day in and day out. They come here, they are focused, they know what they have to do and they take pride at doing things right.”
In going undefeated by beating Denmark, Germany, Finland, the United States and Denmark, Canada has done just about everything right.
“It’s going to be hard to stop them,” Reway said. “But we’re going to try our best, for sure.”
Follow @SWhyno on Twitter