The playoff round of the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship begins tomorrow with the quarterfinal matchups featuring the non-relegated teams from Group A and Group B, although the first relegation game in the best-of-three series will also take place. The games will take place at Helsinki Ice Hall and Hartwall Arena in Helsinki, Finland.
The first part of this preview will cover the two games being played Hartwall Arena, with the first game being a battle between Russia and Denmark, and the second game being host Finland facing off against the defending champions from Canada.
Russia vs. Denmark
Hartwall Arena, 2:00 PM GMT+2 (8 AM EST, 5 AM PST)
The Russian machine has been one of the two most solid in the tournament. Despite giving up a point in a 2-1 OT victory over the Czech Republic to start things off and then ending with a 2-1 victory over Slovakia, the Sbornaya rallied from a 3-2 deficit to defeat Finland 6-4, having scored three straight goals to help secure the win.
Ivan Provorov (PHI) has been the general on defense, as expected, while undrafted overagers Maxim Lazarev and Yegor Korshkov have led things offensively with five points apiece. Draft-eligible tot Alexander Polunin leads the team with three tallies. In goal, Alexander Georgiev has taken on the bulk of the duties, having put up a 1.95 goals-against average and .923 save percentage in the process. He has shown few chinks in his armor.
Most curious is that star forward Evgeny Svechnikov (DET) has yet to record a point, but he is second on the team with nine shots on goal. Facing Denmark in the quarterfinal game could be just the tonic to remedy his dry spell, though. Captain Vladislav Kamenev (NSH) has 14 shots and three points so far, having come over from the Milwaukee Admirals of the AHL to lead this team.
For Denmark, the fairy tale ending was already achieved in a 2-1 victory over Switzerland. That practically guaranteed them a spot in these quarterfinals, and thus in next year’s WJC in Canada, and that quite honestly is all they were looking for. The team came to this tourney without Nikolaj Ehlers, who is busy playing for the Winnipeg Jets, and thus had no true established hope to build on.
Ehlers’ cousin Alexander True does play for Seattle of the WHL and has 19 points in 30 games this season, but his first-line duties have simply been good, but yeoman, due to the fact that Denmark just doesn’t have the depth or horses to compete in this tournament offensively. They have managed just four goals in four games and there is little reason to feel that this team will catch lightning in a bottle for the second time, despite solid goaltending from both Thomas Lillie and Mathias Seldrup.
Synopsis: Russia takes this game with little fanfare or challenge. The speed and skill is simply too much for this young, underdeveloped Danish team to handle, even if the two had a spirited test game before the tournament. The fans will nonetheless applaud the charming Danes as they exit the stage with experience that should help in preparing for an even stronger 2017 tourney in Toronto and Montreal.
Finland vs Canada
Hartwall Arena, 6 PM GMT+2 (12 PM EST, 9 AM PST)
The teams with the two biggest on-site fan followings are now going to faceoff against each other in a game hockey fans everywhere are just licking their chops to see.
For the Canadians, this tournament has more or less been a disappointment. Other than the 6-1 win over Denmark, the team simply hasn’t been able to produce consistently or prevent opponents from getting off to a good start. A big opening day loss to the USA had the Canadians scratching their heads about line chemistry issues. Three games later, those issues are still there. Lots of missed passes, over-handling of the puck, mistimed shots, and unsuccessful dump-ins, as well as the lack goal-scoring touch in front of the net, has the team wondering how to get on track.
What is undeniable, though, is that the skill and talent is there to turn everything around overnight. That will have to start in the net where neither Mason MacDonald (CGY) nor Mackenzie Blackwood (NJD) have a save percentage above.892. In addition, NHL forward Jake Virtanen (VAN), of Finnish origin himself, has had no impact on this tournament, so all this team needs is for Virtanen to get things going at the right time. The same can practically be said of captain Brayden Point (TBL) – and now is the time.
As for the Finns, this club may be their best overall team on paper in over 20 years. More than a handful of NHL draft picks dot the lineup, and the two best players – who already maintain superstar status in Finland where both play regularly in Finland’s top league – are surefire 2016 top-5 picks’ Jesse Puljujarvi and Patrik Laine. Puljujarvi leads the tournament with five goals and 12 points. Laine himself has contributed eight points in four games. Their center is Carolina Hurricanes second rounder Sebastian Aho, who has three goals and nine points himself. With 21 points in 26 Liiga games for Karpat, where he plays with Puljujarvi, Aho may currently be the best of the trio. They were expected to be Finland’s stars, and that is exactly what they have become. Draft-eligible Olli Juolevi has also contributed six assists to the offensive side of the ledger.
Aside from a 6-4 loss to Russia, where they gave up a solid 3-2 lead, the Fins have enjoyed lots of scoring and smooth sailing. But a tight, 5-4 win over the Czechs showed that the defense definitely has some questions to answer. That the team finished the last game with only four defensemen thanks to a stomach flu that seems to have knocked out three of their top seven could become a big problem. Whether these players are back in action in the quarterfinals could play a significant role. In addition, precious little has come from the likes of Kasperi Kapanen (TOR), Mikko Rantanen (COL), Julius Natinnen (2016), and Juho Lammikko (FLA), who have combined for just six points. In addition, starter Veini Vehvilainen (2016), a star in winning silver at the U18, has a 3.36 goals-against average and miserable .857 save percentage.
Synopsis: As fun and exciting as this Finnish team has been in the tournament, and as infuriatingly as the Canadian squad has played to date, the Finns will meet their match. The type of forechecking game the Canadians will bring to a mistake-prone Finnish defense, already facing illness issues, should spell disaster for the home country squad. Even the amazing hometown crowd will likely have to share the arena with a good 4000+ Canadian fans that have no plans of heading home prematurely. This Team Canada has its back up against the wall, but the pressure to succeed for a Finnish team whose youngsters are carrying the team offensively will just be too much to be successful over a full 60 minutes against the reigning champs.