Canada may have rolled through the preliminary round at the world hockey championship in Prague, Czech Republic, but there are plenty of reasons for caution as a quarter-final against Belarus looms.
Belarus clinched fourth place in Group B with a 3-2 win over Norway on Tuesday, setting up a playoff matchup Thursday with Canada. The Canadians finished first in Group A, capping their perfect run through the preliminary round with a 10-1 rout of Austria.
But the Belarusians are hardly pushovers. They won four times in regulation in the preliminary round, including a convincing 5-2 victory over the United States, and two of their three losses came in overtime.
"We know we're going to be challenged by a very good Belarusian team," coach Todd McLellan said. "They have one line that's very dynamic, that can score goals. They're a hard team to play against. We've been able to watch some games and scout them a little bit."
That dynamic line is led by Alexei Kalyuzhny, who put up five goals and five assists in seven games and has proven himself to be one of the most dangerous forwards at the tournament.
Unlike Canadian teams at the world championships, which are thrown together at the end of the NHL season, the Belarusians have spent more time playing as a cohesive unit. Add in the fact that Canada has been ousted in the quarter-final of the last two tournaments, and you have the recipe for a potential upset.
"Guys understand that the intensity is going to shift now," Canadian forward Jason Spezza said. "It's always hard to knock a team out. Belarus is a structured team. They've played together during the season so they're going to pose different problems for us than anything we've seen."
Canada will have a rested Sidney Crosby in the lineup against Belarus. The team captain didn't play Tuesday as Canada had already wrappped up top spot in Group A.
"Sid has played a lot of hockey this year," McLellan said. "We think he'll be better suited come Thursday with the rest."
Against Austria, Matt Duchene and Spezza each had two goals and two assists. Eight different Canadians scored while firing 46 shots at Austrian netminder Bernhard Starkbaum, while goaltender Mike Smith turned aside 14 shots for Canada.
It's the first time the Canadians have amassed a perfect record heading into the elimination round since 2008, when they earned a silver medal.
Before the tournament began, Canada overcame an early 2-1 deficit to defeat Austria 4-2 in an exhibition match in Vienna on April 29.
"We wanted to use this game as a measuring bar for where we've come in two and a half weeks," said coach McLellan after Tuesday's more definitive victory. "We've come a long way as a group, as a team. We should be prepared, now, for the elimination round."
Tyson Barrie, Taylor Hall, Aaron Ekblad, Jordan Eberle, Brayden Schenn and Nathan MacKinnon also scored for Canada.
Dominique Heinrich had the lone goal for the Austrians, a long shot from the right wing at 2:44 of the third.
In Crosby's absence, defenceman Dan Hamhuis wore the C.
"It's an honour for sure," said Hamhuis. "I've got some big shoes to fill for sure for Sid."
Meantime, Kalyuzhny, Dmitri Korobov and Andrei Kostitsyn all scored power-play goals to help Belarus reach the quarter-finals for the second straight year.
"We were looking good at 3-0 but Norway are a good team and they came back hard," Belarus forward Andrei Stepanov said. "It was hard at the end."
Eichel wins it for U.S.
Jack Eichel scored on a wrist shot with 28 seconds left in overtime to give the U.S. a 5-4 victory over Slovakia as the Americans finished first in their group with six wins and one loss. The result means the young U.S. team will meet Switzerland in the quarter-finals.
In a match of two bottom teams in Group A, France beat Latvia 3-2 after a penalty shootout. Austria and Slovenia will be relegated to the second-tier tournament next year.
Finland over Russia in shootout
In a repeat of last year's final and a match-up for second place in Group B, Finland downed defending champion Russia 3-2 after a penalty shootout. Joonas Donskoi scored the decisive goal in the shootout after he roofed a backhand with 2:19 remaining in regulation to tie the game.
Finland will play host nation the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals, while Russia takes on Sweden.
The Czech Republic edged Switzerland 2-1 after a penalty shootout with Michal Vondrka scoring the winner.
All four quarter-final games are scheduled for Thursday.