Nothing has come easy for this collection of Canadian teenagers at the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship.
They have overcome injuries, uneven goaltending, slow starts, a lack of discipline at times, and nervous, tentative play to advance to the semifinals against Sweden on Wednesday night in Montreal (7:30 p.m. ET).
The other semifinal pits the United States against Russia. The U.S. defeated Russia 3-2 in preliminary-round play in Toronto last Thursday, but in the past it has proven difficult to beat a team twice in this tournament.
Canada knows all about the American and Russian teams, having defeated the Russians 5-3 in the tournament opener and dropping a 3-1 decision to the U.S. after some early penalty trouble.
Swedes dominate, but Canadians close
For the Canadians to advance to the gold-medal final, they will need their best effort to date to get by Sweden. Through depth and swift puck movement, the speedy Swedes have been the class of the tournament through five games, outscoring the opposition 26-9 in their five victories.
Canada has been no slouch with 26 goals of its own and 11 against, but at times the Canadians have looked ordinary and slow — like they did in the first period of their 5-3 quarter-final win against the Czech Republic in Montreal on Monday.
It also would help if shutdown defenceman Philippe Myers was healthy enough to return to action after suffering a concussion in a 3-1 loss to the U.S. last Saturday.
Canada got forward Mitchell Stephens back against the Czechs after a two-game absence with an undisclosed injury, and he chipped in a goal and an assist in the quarter-final win.
Goaltending a question mark for Canada
Myers' defensive prowess would be welcome against Canada's next opponent.
Sweden is led by a pair of familiar names in Ottawa Senators prospect Jonathan Dahlen, son of former NHLer Ulf Dahlen, and Alex Nylander, brother of Toronto Maple Leafs forward William Nylander and son of former NHLer Michael Nylander.
The Swedes also have players to watch in 16-year-old defenceman Rasmus Dahlin, the youngest player in the tournament, and sniper Joel Eriksson-Ek, who began the season with the Minnesota Wild.
Canada will need its best checking effort against Sweden and strong goaltending from Connor Ingram of Imperial, Sask., who got the nod over Carter Hart after beating the Czechs in the quarter-finals.
If you're looking for a reason why Canada has won only one gold medal since 2009 in this tournament, it has been poor goaltending. Ingram has surrendered six goals on 45 shots for a .867 save percentage. Hart hasn't been much better at .881.
All-Quebec line coming up big
Canada also needs its depth to shine through against Sweden. It was a good sign that Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds forward Blake Speers broke through in the second period to celebrate his 20th birthday with his first goal of the season on Monday.
He began the season with the New Jersey Devils, played three games and didn't score before he was returned to junior. In his first game back in the Soo, Speers suffered a broken wrist and didn't play another meaningful game until this tournament began on Dec. 26.
Canadian head coach Dominique Ducharme also has found some magic with his all-Quebec league line, a proverbial land of the giants with 6-foot-4, 224-pound Julien Gauthier, 6-foot-4, 202-pound Nicolas Roy and 6-foot-3, 202-pound Pierre-Luc Dubois.
The strong play of this trio, especially the determined work of Roy, resulted in two goals from Gauthier.
Can Sweden win big one?
Plenty will be made before the semifinal game against Sweden about the Tre Kronor's inability to win the big game. The names and faces change in this tournament from year to year, but the Swedes can't ignore their recent past. They're 40-0 in preliminary-round games but only 11-11 in the playoff round in the last decade.
Sweden has won gold only once during this span and settled for four silvers and a bronze. Canada has played a big role in Sweden's playoff-round demises, winning the last six meetings between the hockey powers.
But a seventh could prove to be the most difficult.