A close game between two European rivals gave us the tournament opener we deserved, as the Czechs and Russians competed hard throughout the match, which ended with a 4-3 victory for the Czech Republic. Center Jan Jenik (ARI) wired home the game winner from the high slot late in the second period on the power play to break a 3-3 tie. It didn;t take the Czchs long to solve 2020 draft prospect Yaroslav Askarov, who was beaten glove side on a slapshot from Simon Kubickek during the man advantage just 2:46 into the game. Speedy draft phenom Jan Mysak made it 2-0 with an off-wing wrister from the right circle during a 2-on-1 that went under the bar, also on Askarov’s glove side. Russia rallied with a pair of even-strength markers after the halfway point of the opening period. Flyers’ prospect Yegor Zamula beat Lukas Dostal (ANA) with a wrister from the high slot with just under 10 minutes left, and winger Vasily Podkolzin, a first-round pick of the Vancouver Canucks in 2019, tied the score at 2 by batting home his first of the tournament just seconds after a Russian power play had expired. The two nations exchanged goals in the middle frame, the first on a cross-body wroster from Matej Blumel (EDM) to gave the Czechs a 3-2 lead before Zamula scored his second of the match just 35 seconds later. Penalties by Dmitry Voronkov (CBJ) and Nikita Rtischev, however, would prove costly, as Jenik’s goal during a two-man advantage gave the Czechs a leas they would not relinquish. Dostal finished with 33 saves in the victory, and Askarov was pulled after surrendering four goals on 17 shots. Russia (0-1-0-0) will play Canada on Saturday, and the Czechs (1-0-0-0) will play Germany.
#WorldJuniors: C/W Jan Jenik (ARI 3rd/2018) beats Askarov high glove three seconds into a 5-on-3 to give the Czechs a 4-3 lead late in the 2nd. Nikita Rtischev took a roughing call after Askarov was poked by Matej Pekar. Inconsistent officiating if you asked me. pic.twitter.com/z7aEbK3Znc
There’s really no other way to frame it — Askarov was brutal in Thursday’s loss to the Czechs. He was pulled after 40 minutes, allowing four goals on only 17 shots. Although credit has to go to power shooters like Kubicek, Mysak, and Jenik for sniping it where they ain’t, the bottom line is that Askarov never made glove-side adjustments and it cost his team a chance to win. If you’ve watched him at any point over the last two years, Askarov is jittery all the time. It’s not that he’s nervous or suffers from some sort of hyperactive disorder — he simply likes to stay in motion, and it seems to be his way of staying locked in and focused. The knee-jerk reaction to the goals he scored was to question his glove hand technique, and one on-air commentator (who never played goal) was pretty adamant that the best goaltending prospect in the last 15 years positions his glove too high. However, any study of Askarov’s game in any league or competition the last two years would reveal that he’s actually smothered some pretty high-powered offenses with that same glove hand positioned the same way. Knowing this, I went back and looked at the film, extracted the critical inforamtion, then consulted with my goalie dudes to confirm or deny my observations. Turns out, Askarov’s issue on Thursday had nothing to do with glove positioning but everything to do with body positioning — i.e. tracking pucks, being square to the puck, and bisecting the net when the puck is at the top angle (or point/high slot). For whatever reason, Askarov’s shuffle to react to the one-timer stopped short of being centered on the puck, which is part of what shooting off the pass is intended to do — catch goalies out of position. A split second quicker and shuffling an inch or two more to the glove side likely results in a save on the Simon Kubicek shot that made it 1-0, but you also have to credit Kubicek for hitting his spot inside the post with velocity.
LW Maxim Groshev
The close and competitive nature of the game made a first-year eligible like Groshev a candidate for lengthy stretches on the bench, and he ended playing only a few shifts over the last two periods combined and 7:01 for the game. One play he made that stood out was a neat bank pass right on the tape of a streaking linemate, and the pass was delivered under pressure from two opponents. Considering how crucial a game Saturday’s match is with Canada, it is likely Groshev actually plays less.
LW Jan Mysak
One of the more exciting players in the tournament, Mysak’s ice time likely got a boost after teammate Jakub Lauko went down with what looks like a tournament-ending knee injury. Mysak was buzzing all over the ice, and his dart of a wrister on the 2-0 goal is just one example of why he is so dangerous. Remember, Mysak has always been ranked by me as a top-15 pick, so it was good to see him get off to a good start in Ostrava, especially since he was so-so at the August Ivan Hlinka. He had multiple chances during his 16:32 of ice time, and his four shots tied Jan Jenik for the most among Czech forwards.
I have been pushing Raska for over a year now, and he was a preseason first rounder for me for several reasons. For one, he’s got the combination of speed and physicality, which was evident in Thursday’s match against Russia. Raska is all effort, and he played a North American style well before he joined the QMJHL’s Rimouski Oceanic for this draft season. A glance at the stat sheet from Thursday shows zero points and zero shots in under 10 minutes of ice time, but when he was playing, Raska was effective at maintaining control of the puck off the cycle, delivering solid checks, and forechecking with speed. He even drew a penalty. It’s a shame he doesn’t get to play on the same line with Alexis Lafreniere in Rimouski, because he’s produced with no power play time and has spent most of his season on the third line.
LHD Simon Kubicek
How good was Kubicek against the Russians? For starters, he opened the scoring with a blast from the point that whizzed by Yaroslav Askarov’s glove. From then on, he was excellent in all three zones while paired with fellow 2020 draft prospect (and WHL’er) Radek Kucerik. Kubicek is a non-nonsense 200-foot defenseman who played a game-high 22:20 and 37 shifts. He was physical; displayed quick feet while handing onrushing or driving Russian forwards; and he was used on both special teams. It says something when a coach with a ton of pressure on him like Vaclac Varada was willing to entrust a first-year draft eligible with most of the defensive-zone draws and penalty kills during the late stages of periods. If you haven’t seen him play for the Seattle Thunderbirds, you’re missing out — the kid is a stud.
#WolrdJuniors: Czechs strike first on the power play as LHD Simon Kubicek (2020 Draft) of the WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds blisters one over Yaroslav Askarov’s glove, which teams have targeted in the past.
A versatile forward who can play center or wing, Pytlik was relegated to depth duty on the third line for the Czechs and was limited to one shot on goal in 13:59 of ice time. He was good along the boards and made it a point to establish a net-front presence, and on one occasion showed good speed and a long, clean stride when racing to a loose puck near the Russian line. Expect him to be one of the beneficiaries from Jakub Lauko’s injury in terms of usage and an increase in shifts.
LHD Radek Kucerik
Paired with Simon Kubicek for most of the game, Kucerik saw more time in defensive-zone draws at even strength and on the penalty kill. He was physical throughout the match, using hard shoves and finishing his checks as he hounded opponents during their attempts to cycle the puck. Once he marks someone, Kucerik will stick to him like velcro, even if it means chasing him high towards the blue line. In defending the rush, Kucerik kept a tight gap, wielded a highly active stick, and showed quick closing speed while keeping the Russians to the outside. He played a safe and clean game during his 14:52 of ice time, which was the lowest among the Czech Republic’s six defenders.
The Canadians used a physical forecheck and a dominant power play to upend the rival Americans 6-4 in the opener of preliminary round play. The U.S. jumped out to a 2-0 lead after 20 minutes on a deflection goal from Shane Pinto (OTT) and a snipe from Arthur Kaliyev (LAK) — each goal was scored on the power play. Canada had a strong period otherwise, and they were effective at generating chances pff a physical forecheck and crisp puck movement. They finally cashed in early in the second when Connor McMichael (WAS) redirected a perfect centering feed from Akil Thomas (LAK) through the legs of Spencer Knight (FLA), and Barrett Hayton (ARI) tied the score at 2 with a shot from the right circle on the power play. The Canadians upped their lead to 4-2 when Nolan Foote (TB) wristed home a goal during the man advantage later in the second, and Hayton tallied his second of the match midway through the final frame. Team USA responded immediately, however, as Nick Robertson (TOR) beat undrafted goalie Nico Daws with a wrist shot through a screen go make it 4-3, then set up Pinto’s tying score on the power play with a perfect centering feed from the corner boards. The game didn’t remain tied for long, as K’Andre Miller’s (NYR) saucer pass into the middle of the ice was intercepted by Alexis Lafreniere, who beat Knight to give Canada the lead for good. Ty Dellandrea (DAL) capped the scoring with an empty netter. Canada (1-0-0-0) will face Russia on Saturday, and the U.S. (0-1-0-0) meets Germany on Friday before getting the next day off.
LW Alexis Lafreniere
Talk about setting the bar for all performers in this tournament, let alone the superior draft prospects. Still, if anyone is capable of replicating a dominant performance in a world juniors opener against a heated rival, look no further than Alexis Lafreniere — the consensus top choice for the 2020 NHL Draft. Lafreniere scored a backbreaking goal in dramatic fashion — by using his stick to intercept a cross-ice saucer pass from K’Andre Miller and settle it flat before beating Spencer Knight for the eventual game winner late in the third period. He would later add an assist to cap a one-goal, three-assist effort and earn Player of the Game honors. We all know the kid can play, but there wasn’t one instance where the youngster looked like he was pressing or forcing the issue. His phenomenal touch was on display with frequency specifically in dishing the puck around on the power play and leading his line mates for zone entries that trapped Americans high near their line. Lafreniere was physical, quick to the puck, aggressive, and decisive. It’s means something when a team’s best player is their best player, especially when they are in their first year of draft eligibility. He played 15:49, which was fifth among Canadian forwards, while being used on both the power play and the penalty kill.
…K’Andre Miller (NYR) with a costly turnover right off the ensuing draw and Alexis Lafreniere with the finish. Canada leads the U.S. 5-4 late in the 3rd. pic.twitter.com/A66xXjzsuY
Although he is a natural center, Byfield looked quite comfortable on the wing and was controlling the puck with quickness, agility, and confidence. He was physical on the forecheck, and the timing and placement of his passes during the cycle were accurate. He didn’t see much ice time in the final period (only 2:30) and his 11:40 was ninth among Canadian forwards. Part of his limited time in the final frame was a high sticking call just 15 seconds after the Americans cut Canada’s lead to 4-3, and he barely saw the ice again. Still, there are several positives to take away from his world juniors debut, especially when you consider he’s the youngest player on the roster.