MONTREAL — Mitchell Stephens didn’t want to talk about it.
“Next question,” he had said when asked about the ankle injury that had kept the Team Canada forward out of the lineup for the previous two games.
The point was that whatever had been bothering Stephens was no longer an issue. And in a 5-3 quarterfinal win over the Czech Republic at the world junior championship, the Peterborough, Ont., native proved it.
Stephens, who had gone without a point in the first two games before getting injured, broke out with a goal and two assists in his return on Monday night. It was the type of game-breaking performance Canada had been missing when it lost 3-1 to the United States in the final round robin game.
“Well, being off for a couple of days helped, I guess,” said Stephens with a laugh.
“It’s tough when you come out of an injury and go back into the system and try to get your legs under you. It was a team effort tonight. I wouldn’t say it was one individual guy.”
Canada now faces undefeated Sweden — who defeated Slovakia 8-3 in the other quarterfinal in Montreal — in one of two Wednesday semifinals.
“They’re a good team,” Team Canada captain Dylan Strome said of Sweden. “We’re going to have to be aware. We’re going to have to be aware on all sides of the puck and in the offensive zone they can attack just as quick as we can.”
Certainly, Canada will have to be better against Sweden than it was against the Czech Republic.
Canada had crushed the Czech Republic 8-0 and 5-0 in a pair of pre-tournament games. Since then, they had cruised to the medal round, outscoring its opponents 21-8, while the Czechs managed just one win in four games.
But the medal round is a different beast. In a single-elimination game, anything can happen, something that many of the Canadian players experienced in a back-and-forth 6-5 loss to Finland in last year’s quarterfinal.
“You can’t take any team for granted,” Strome had warned before the game. “It was a 2-3 seed last year game and we’re in a 2-3 seed this year game. That game (last year against Finland) was 6-5 and you’ve got to be prepared for anything.”
No one could have predicted that the quarterfinal would be this close — or that the game would start so poorly for Canada.
The Czechs not only scored the game’s first goal, they got it on the luckiest of bounces, with Canadian goalie Connor Ingram stopping a shot but having the rebound ricochet off a referee and onto the waiting stick of Czech forward David Kase.
“I’ve never seen one go straight to a guy,” said Ingram, who stopped 13 of 16 shots. “I’ve seen one go off a linesman to a breakaway or a two-on-one or something like that, but I’ve never seen one cause an open net before. That’s something new and it’s going to happen once in a blue moon.”
By the end of the first period, Canada trailed 1-0 and were booed by the home crowd.
But the team settled down in the second period and jumped out to a 2-1 lead, thanks to Stephens, who Strome called “our best player tonight.”
The Tampa Bay Lightning prospect, who has 28 points in 22 games in the Ontario Hockey League this season, has been used in an “energy” role for Canada at the world juniors. And whether his team was down a goal or tied, Mitchells provided the much-needed spark.
“He’s an energy guy,” said Ingram. “He’s huge for us and I thought this was one of the best games I’ve seen him play. He was fantastic tonight.”
Shortly after Mathieu Joseph stole a clearing attempt, Stephens took a pass down low and found Blake Speers in front of the net for a redirection. Stephens then gave Canada a 2-1 lead when he beat the Czech goalie from the top of the face-off circle.
With the score tied 2-2, Stephens picked up his second assist of the game when he set up defenceman Thomas Chabot, who toe-dragged around a Czech defender and scored his third goal of the tournament.
And yet, this one wasn’t easy. Not by a long stretch.
Every time Canada tried to distance itself, the Czech Republic kept nipping at its heels, trying to close the gap.
Canada’s Julien Gauthier made it 4-2 in the third period. And the Czechs scored less than two minutes later to make it 4-3. Gauthier scored again to make it 5-3 and the Czechs kept pressing, looking for more.
If anything, it was a wake-up call for what lies ahead.