EP Rinkside's 3 Stars from Day 6 of the 2023 U18 World Hockey Championship
BASEL & PORRENTRUY, Switzerland – All it took was 34 seconds. That's it. Barely a half-minute of action and Canada had this one in the bag.
Colby Barlow and Matthew Wood scored 34 seconds apart near the end of the first period, and that was curtains for the Czechs.
It was a hard-fought, closely contested period, though.
“That was huge. A huge shift in momentum after the goal to get another one. A really big shift in momentum and I think it gave us a lot of confidence going into the second,” Wood said after the game.
And indeed, the momentum followed them into the second period. Wood found the net just 14 seconds into the middle frame to make it a 3-0 game.
The Czechs mustered a few furious attempts to claw their way back into this game, but every time they put one on the board, it was wiped out by a Canadian goal before they could even announce it in the Raiffeisen Arena in Porrentruy.
Eduard Šalé made it 3-1 for Czechia, and then Wood completed the hat trick barely three minutes later.
“It got better as the game went on and we continued on the momentum to close the game in the third,” Wood said.
The Czechs eventually shrank the deficit to two goals, but then Canada put their foot right back on the gas and hit them on the counterattack.
“It was a tough loss. Both teams had many chances but Canada scored eight goals and we only scored three,” Šalé said after the game.
This was Canada at their best in this tournament, and they held that form from puck drop to the final horn. They were in complete control, right from the moment they pulled away from Czechia at the end of the opening frame. In the third period, they showed what they were capable of and made it an 8-3 blowout.
“We’re only getting better as time goes on, only getting sharper. It’s a nice feeling and we feel confident going to the quarters,” Wood said.
The loss has serious ramifications in the quarterfinals. The loss means that Czechia has to face the tournament favourite Americans in Basel; Canada, meanwhile, locked in a much more favourable opponent in the host Swiss.
1. Ryan Leonard, LW, USA (2023 NHL Draft)
I'm not sure that this tournament could possibly be going any better for Ryan Leonard. Not after he put up another five points in the USA's 10-0 win against Switzerland today, many of them of the highlight reel variety. That pushes his tournament point total to 13 in only four games going into the quarterfinals.
“Obviously, another strong game from him and his line," American head coach Dan Muse said after the game. "That’s the expectation that we have. That’s the expectation that they put on themselves. They’re creating a lot of offence, but I believe those guys should get a lot of credit for their play away from the puck, too. They’ve been really good in this tournament.”
Talk about an understatement. They've been amazing. You'd almost think they had a telepathic connection the way they've strung together goals like the 5-0 tally in today's game. The reason we're talking about Leonard and not Will Smith or Gabe Perreault, though, is that he was the one setting the table for his linemates this one.
The way Leonard chips the puck into space on his backhand and shifts his weight to get to it first before sending it to Smith who connects with Perreault for the tap-in at the net-front? I'm not sure I've seen a secondary assist that remarkable in some time.
🇺🇸 What a play by line #1! 🤩 Leonard -> White -> Perreault -> 🚨. It's 5-0 @usahockey! #u18mensworlds #SUIUSA pic.twitter.com/YCnpDt9Hh7— IIHF (@IIHFHockey) April 25, 2023
Sure, it feels like everyone on Team USA's top line has had a night at this tournament, but what makes Leonard special is that he's maintained the same level of excellence from puck drop on opening night to the final horn in their last round-robin game.
“Yeah, that’s who he is. Ryan Leonard doesn’t take days off. I haven’t seen it once in two years, so I’m not expecting to see it anytime soon. That’s who he is. He’s always going, and this is every single game, every single practice – he’s playing like it’s playoff hockey for him all of the time. He only knows one way. There’s no other switch."
I don't know that I can expect any different at this point either. Leonard's been the best, most consistent player on Team USA, and the way he's mixing it up with opponents behind the play or taking that extra stride to play the body really does have a certain playoff hockey feel to it.
In fact, Leonard's play was so strong in this game that the IIHF singled him out for dope testing when it was all over. In case you're wondering why I don't have any comments from the primary here.
1. Matthew Wood, FW, Canada (2023)
Wood scored three straight goals for Canada and was a consistent threat all game long. He showed the full complement of his skills today, and it sure was impressive.
He scored from in close. He scored with one-timers. He was downright clinical whenever the puck was on his stick. It all seemed easy to him.
“I think our whole line was moving the puck and our feet well," Wood said after the game. "We found each other really well and I think our offensive abilities took over and we just had a great game together.”
His first (Canada's second) goal of the day was the key in this game. Wood displayed an uncanny level of patience and balance as he snuck into the slot and waited until just the right moment to slide the puck through Czech goaltender Michael Hrabal's five-hole.
“I just kinda saw a little opening there and tried to slide it home," he would later say describing the goal.
Matthew Wood would not be stopped on this play! He extends Canada’s lead to 2-0 just 24 seconds later 🔥 #2023NHLDraft— Elite Prospects (@eliteprospects) April 25, 2023
Wood scored at near a point a game pace with Connecticut in the NCAA as the youngest player in college hockey this season. He's following that up with an excellent tournament as easily one of if not Canada's best player.
“I’d say I’m an offensive threat. I can score from anywhere and make plays. But I don’t take the defensive side of the game lightly at all.”
And who does this offensive threat model his game after? Well, there's a pretty big clue in his jersey.
“I wear 71 because of Yevgeni Malkin. He has always been my favourite player," Wood said after the game. "Obviously, Tage Thompson went to UConn as well. I try to look at his game and model my game after him too. Two great players and I really look up to those guys for sure.”
3. Eduard Šalé, Czechia, FW (2023)
The brightest star in Czechia's lineup was, once again, Šalé. He continues to carry this team offensively at this tournament, often with very little support. He's the only reason this game was even close at points.
He was just a beast all over the ice. His slap shot goal in the second period singlehandedly kept the Czechs in this game when they were otherwise toothless.
“I don’t know. I had many chances that I didn’t score,” Šalé said after the game. “I’m not happy but we must play better against the USA.”
You can understand where he's coming from, even if it seems a bit dour given his individual success. It's all about the team, right? And for this team to beat the United States, they collectively have to reach a new level. Šalé included.
When he describes himself, the offensive side shines through. “I think I’m an offensive, smart guy that can score and create chances.”
He's more than that, though. Šalé is out there on the penalty kill. He's out there when his team has to protect a lead. He's the clear-cut best, most complete player on this Czech team.
“I like it because everybody plays hockey because they like it and everybody wants to play in the best situations. I’m happy to be here in this situation.”
A certain player that he has been looking up to is Calgary Flames winger Jonathan Huberdeau. “I look at him and I think I’ve a little bit of the same style on the ice.”
Now the question remains: Will Šalé lead this Czech team to the biggest upset in this tournament on Thursday?