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Filip Zadina's big performance powers Czechs past Finland, into semifinal

Filip Zadina has been a force for the Czech Republic throughout the World Junior Championship, but he may have had his best game yet, scoring two goals in a quarterfinal defeat of Finland.

BUFFALO – The last time his country got this far in the World Junior Championship, Filip Zadina had just celebrated his fifth birthday and the last time it won gold and bored people to tears in the process, he was barely out of diapers. No country among hockey’s Big Six has had such a run of futility in this tournament as the Czech Republic and, to make matters worse, those country bumpkins southeast of them in Slovakia even won a medal as recently as three years ago.

But the Czechs will definitely be playing for a medal in 2018, thanks to a 4-3 shootout win in the semifinal that was powered by Zadina, who cemented his status as a top-five pick in the 2018 NHL draft. Zadina scored two goals, including the tying goal with 2:16 remaining and the Czech goalie pulled for an extra attacker, and was a force at both ends of the ice. And while everyone has been talking about the play of Swedish defenseman and consensus No. 1 pick Rasmus Dahlin, Zadina has been making a case for himself as a top-shelf prospect as well. And like Avis, Zadina sees no shame in being No. 2, which is where he hopes to find himself at the draft.

“I’m good,” Zadina said. “I know it.”

Zadina did not say that with any kind of air of bravado. He was simply stating a fact. And his play this season so far has backed up his assertion. His performance in the quarterfinal was worthy of the kind of draft love he has been receiving. And in the Quebec League, where he plays with the Halifax Mooseheads, Zadina is looking an awful lot like a former Moosehead, 2017 first overall pick Nico Hischier. In fact, one scout who was in attendance at the Czech quarterfinal said it’s a toss-up between Zadina and Columbus Blue Jackets prospect Vitaly Abramov for best-player status in the QMJHL. And while Zadina feels he’s making a statement with his play the same way Hischier did last year, he acknowledges that Dahlin shouldn’t exactly be listening for footsteps anytime soon.

“I don’t want to send (Dahlin) a message,” Zadina said. “He’s a good guy and a good player and probably he will be the first pick and I’m happy he will be the first pick. I want to be second. He’s a very skilled player and I think he deserves it.”

Zadina balked at coming to North America in 2016, despite being drafted fourth overall in the Canadian Hockey League import draft by the Vancouver Giants. But after the Mooseheads took him 11th overall in the CHL draft a year later, a more mature Zadina felt he was ready to play on the smaller rinks and withstand the rigors of playing in an NHL development league. And seeing as he’s second in scoring in the league with 24 goals and 46 points in just 32 games, it appears he made the right choice. In fact, in Halifax Zadina is staying with the same Dartmouth billet family with which Hischier lived in his only season with the Mooseheads.

“They (Ash and Mandy Phillips) are the best billet family,” Zadina said. “I’m trying to follow in (Hischier’s) footsteps because he’s playing in the NHL and he’s one of the best young guys in the NHL and playing in Halifax helped him a lot.”

This Czech group, meanwhile, is beginning to gain some momentum and is giving the impression it might just be putting something special together here. They started the tournament by beating the Russians 5-4 and finished second in their pool, with their only loss coming to Sweden. Advancing this far is no accident for this team, since most of the leadership group is made up of players who won the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Under-18 Tournament on home soil in 2016. Zadina led the way with five goals and seven points in four games in that tournament, providing a portent of things to come.

“He’s a shark, right? He’s a shark,” said Czech coach Filip Pesan. “He scores. He wants to put the puck in the net and he did it twice tonight and helped the team.”

The Czechs will need more of the same from Zadina and another 51-save effort from goalie Josef Korenar would certainly help in the semifinal, where the Czechs will almost certainly meet Canada, a team that beat them 9-0 in pre-tournament play in a game in which the Czechs sat out their top five players.

“You have to believe,” Zadina said. “If you believe for 70 minutes, you can do whatever you want. You can win against Canada, USA…you just have to believe.”

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