Canada might finally get tested at the world juniors


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Canada faces a tougher test in the world junior semis

The defending champs are steamrolling the “competition” in Edmonton, where they’re a perfect 5-0 and have outscored their opponents 36-4 (an average margin of roughly 7-1). The latest victim was the Czech Republic, which Canada blanked 3-0 in Saturday’s quarter-final.

Things should be at least somewhat more difficult in tonight’s semifinal vs. Russia. It’s a rematch of last year’s gold-medal game, which six current Canadian players were involved in.

Reigning tournament MVP Alexis Lafrenière isn’t on the Canadian team this time because the New York Rangers wouldn’t release the No. 1 overall draft pick. And neither is Akil Thomas, whose goal with four minutes left in last year’s final gave Canada a 4-3 win. He’s overage now and hoping to crack the Los Angeles Kings’ roster.

But Canada once again has Dylan Cozens, a 2019 Buffalo draft pick who leads the tournament with seven goals and ranks second in points with 13. Another key returnee is Quinton Byfield, the No. 2 pick in the 2020 draft (by L.A.), who has seven points.

The Russians’ top scorer, 2020 Toronto first-round pick Rodion Amirov, has only six points. But they may have a talent edge in net with Yaroslav Askarov. His main stats (3-1 record, 2.22 goals-against average, .918 save percentage) aren’t as shiny as Canadian goalie Devon Levi’s (5-0, 0.64, .967). But consider that Askarov plays behind a weaker team, and that he was picked 11th overall in the 2020 draft (by Nashville) while Levi went in the seventh round (to Florida). Also, Askarov has a 0.96 GAA in seven games this season against grown men in the KHL. If he comes out hot tonight, Russia has a puncher’s chance.

The game starts at 6 p.m. ET. The winner plays for gold tomorrow night against the survivor of the 9:30 p.m. ET semifinal between the United States and Finland. Read more about the Canada-Russia matchup here.

Canada’s Dylan Cozens, right, leads the tournament in goals. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

The NFL playoff matchups are set

The new 14-team format has one crucial difference: only the top seed in each conference, not the top two, gets a first-round bye. Those were earned by defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City and the Green Bay Packers. K.C. topped the AFC with an NFL-best 14-2 record after sitting Patrick Mahomes for yesterday’s meaningless loss to the Chargers. Green Bay finished an NFC-high 13-3 after Aaron Rodgers (who will probably edge Mahomes for the MVP award) threw four more touchdown passes in a rout of Chicago to reach 48 on the year. No other quarterback topped 40.

Another big difference: for the first time in 18 years, the playoffs will include the Cleveland Browns. They snapped the NFL’s longest post-season drought by scraping past a Steelers team that had almost nothing to play for and rested several key starters. The AFC North rivals will meet again Saturday night in Pittsburgh.

And one more unusual thing: the Buffalo Bills have a good chance to get their first playoff win in 25 years. The AFC’s highest-scoring team (the apocalypse must truly be upon us) served a 56-burger to Miami yesterday to reach 501 points for the season. Last year, the Bills scored only 314 points. But they look like a new team with third-year QB Josh Allen taking a big leap and new receiver Stefon Diggs leading the league in both catches and receiving yards. Buffalo hosts Indianapolis to kick off the playoffs on Saturday.

Here’s the full slate for the expanded, six-game Wild Card Weekend, including conference seeds and point spreads. Notice that, in two of the matchups, the lower-seeded team is favoured — and by a significant amount.

Saturday

1:05 p.m. ET (AFC): (7) Indianapolis at (2) Buffalo -7

4:40 p.m. ET (NFC): (6) Los Angeles Rams at (3) Seattle -4.5

8:15 p.m. ET (NFC): (5) Tampa Bay -8.5 at (4) Washington

Sunday

1:05 p.m. ET (AFC): (5) Baltimore -3.5 at (4) Tennessee

4:40 p.m. ET (NFC): (7) Chicago at (2) New Orleans -9.5

8:15 p.m. ET (AFC): (6) Cleveland at (3) Pittsburgh -4

Quickly…

Alphonso Davies won another honour. The young Canadian soccer star was named to the French publication L’Equipe‘s world team of the year for 2020. That’s a pretty big deal in soccer, and other stars named to the all-star squad included Neymar and Cristiano Ronaldo. Lionel Messi didn’t make it. Read more about the team and Davies’ list of 2020 awards here.

The Tokyo Olympics are 200 days away — and Japan’s Prime Minister is considering declaring a state of emergency in the city. So far, Japan has been able to avoid a lockdown during the pandemic, and only about 3,400 people have died of COVID-19 in the dense country of 125 million. But new cases are hitting record numbers in Tokyo, and officials have promised to announce soon how exactly they’ll pull off the Olympics from July 23-Aug. 8. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and other officials are still vowing that the Games will go ahead as (re)scheduled. But the coming weeks and months could determine whether adjustments to the plan need to be made. Read more about the issues the pandemic is causing the Tokyo Olympics here.

And finally…

Remember that huge brawl at the 1987 world juniors? It gets brought up every year during the tournament, so maybe you’ve heard enough about it. But with Canada facing Russia tonight, it’s as good a time as any to revisit the lights-out (literally) melee between the Canadian and Soviet Union teams 33 years ago in Piestany, Czechoslovakia. Read more about the infamous donnybrook and watch a contemporary CBC News report (featuring a hirsute Peter Mansbridge!) in this piece from the CBC Archives.

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