2016 World Junior Championship: Playoff and Relegation Round previews

By Chapin Landvogt

Anton Karlsson, Adam Ollas Mattsson, Felix Sandstrom, Jens Looke and Andreas Englund - Team Sweden - 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship

Photo: Team Sweden wrapped up the preliminary round of the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship with a 4-0-0-0 record, as they did at the 2015 WJC, but they are hoping to avoid the same fate that awaited them at last year’s tournament (courtesy of RONI REKOMAA/AFP/Getty Images)

 

The relegation round opener as well as the other two quarterfinal matches take place at Helsinki Ice Hall, with the relegation match featuring Belarus against Switzerland, and the quarterfinal games featuring Sweden taking on Slovakia, and the USA meeting the Czech Republic.

Relegation Round

Belarus vs. Switzerland
Helsinki Ice Hall, 12 PM GMT+2 (6 AM EST, 3 AM PST)

For Belarus, they were the David in a group of Goliaths coming in, but the team has proven to be hard to beat. They kept things very close for long stretches against Russia and Finland and put up excellent fights against the Slovaks and Czechs. Many felt that they needed just one bona fide offensive star to have been the Cinderella story of the tournament, but alas, a loss of their number one goalie and a lack of any consistent offensive contributor sealed their fate as a relegation round contender.

Nonetheless, Stepan Falkovsky of the Ottawa 67’s has been solid and contributed two points while showing off his puck-moving skills, which small captain Vladislav Goncharov also has plenty of. The forward crew has been hard-working, but not one of them has scored more than one goal. Danila Karaban has stuck out with his four assists, however.

For Switzerland, you can basically say the opposite. Other than taking Canada to overtime with a truly inspired performance, the team has simply disappointed like no other. If anything, the team has stuck out most through a number of hard fouls and unnecessary penalties.

With a handful of NHL draft picks, most notably San Jose’s Timo Meier, as well as a roster filled with players currently dotting line-ups around the NLA, the team’s presentation at this tournament has been downright shocking. An initial 8-3 loss to Sweden was marred by a number of overly physical actions, one of which knocked star forward William Nylander (TOR) out of the tournament, and had many wondering if it was just an anomaly. That was followed by another shocking result, namely a 2-1 loss to Denmark, a team that on paper has no business defeating this Swiss club. The energy-draining 3-2 overtime loss to Canada was followed by a 10-1 shellacking from the USA.

In light of this, it is terribly difficult to think that Switzerland even has the upper hand against Belarus that it clearly had against Germany last winter when it handily sent its neighbors into the lower division with two quick wins. The Belarusians can smell blood here and have created results that give them much more to build on.

Synopsis: This best-of-three series will go to three and the Swiss will take a close, entertaining third game to barely maintain the class. Hard to say if they would be able to do so if it were facing the Latvian side that recently gained promotion in Vienna and will feature a number of established players at next year’s WJC.

Quarterfinals

Sweden vs. Slovakia
Helsinki Ice Hall, 4 PM GMT+2 (10 AM EST, 7 AM PST)

Last season, this matchup was for the bronze medal with the Slovaks magically coming out on top with an excellent performance from star forward Martin Reway. He is no longer here, however, but the current Slovak team stayed competitive early on in the tournament until being blown out by host Finland 8-3 and only mustering one, single goal in the course of a 2-0 loss to the Czech Republic and 2-1 loss to Russia. Even their 4-2 victory over Belarus came with an automatic goal at the end and was long in doubt until some third period heroics changed things in their favor.

Led by Eric Cernak (LAK) and Christian Jaros (OTT) on defense, the team is rough-and-tumble and can keep things close, but the offense has simply been almost non-existent. Tiny Matus Sukel leads things up front with a goal and four points, but it is terribly quiet after him on the offensive front. Radovan Bondra (CHI), Filip Lestan, and Kristian Pospisil were expected to lead the charge, but the three have combined for just two points.

Meanwhile, hardly a negative thing can be said about Sweden and how the team grew together throughout the preliminary round, where the Tre Kronor collected all 12 points possible in the preliminary round. Both goalies Linus Soderstrom (NYI), who single-handedly defeated the USA 1-0 in a 46-save performance, and Felix Sandstrom are number one-style goalies and are ready to guide this team to gold. The 8-3 win over Switzerland and especially the 5-2 victory over Canada showed just how controlling and confident this team is. The 5-0 win over Denmark was achieved practically while sleepwalking.

Unfortunately, not everything is so rosy heading into the playoff round. William Nylander was expected to be perhaps the biggest star in this tournament, but a brutal hit to the head has knocked him out of the preliminary round, and it doesn’t appear as though he is coming back. Soderstrom was the author of the wins over the U.S., Canada, and Switzerland, but he left the game against Canada with less than four minutes to go due to an undisclosed setback. His status is questionable. Topping things off, stomach flu seems to have hit several other players, and the 1-0 win over the U.S. did not hide the fact that Sweden was simply dominated by the Team USA, whose one mistake led to an Alexander Nylander breakaway goal.

Synopsis: There will be no upset in this year’s tournament. As nice as goalie Adam Huska has been for Slovakia, the firepower simply isn’t there. A rock-solid, puck-moving defense and four lines that can score and suppress an attack have Sweden looking at a medal. Slovakia will make a game of it, but there will be no ending the run Sweden is on at this point.

USA vs Czech Republic
Helsinki Ice Hall, 8:00 PM GMT+2 (2 PM EST, 11 AM PST)

Since David Pastrnak’s arrival, the Czech Republic has looked like an inspired team. It is a good thing too, because Pavel Zacha’s injury has obviously limited his game to the point of him being a non-factor. In fact, his performance against Finland gave the impression that he hampers the Czechs’ game plan when he is on the ice.

All in all, the Czechs have strong depth players and have gotten production from a number of players up front, namely WHL players Michael Spacek (WPG – 5 points) and Jiri Smejkal (4 points). The defense features ample toughness and several players with top-flight shots. Also impressive has been the all-around game displayed by many of the skaters who play professionally in the Czech Republic.

Nonetheless, the Czechs have rarely convinced over a full 60 minutes and have been prone to taking unnecessary penalties at key moments – be it their fault or not. That simply has to stop if this team is going to play for a medal. Vitek Vanecek (WSH) is the go-to guy in goal, but only sports a save percentage of .890, having allowed 10 goals against in four games. Not bad, but not the goalkeeping necessary to win a medal.

The USA, on the other hand, is coming into the quarterfinals with one of the tournament’s biggest profiles, Auston Matthews – who has been the team’s best player – and arguably the best overall depth of any team. When players who lead CHL squads in scoring are little more than defensively responsible workers for their country, then you are going into a game with good possibilities. The work ethic over the whole ice surface is second to none and the team has shown increasingly impressive puck-possession skills as the tournament has progressed. They outscored their final two opponents 14-2 after having been shut out by Sweden in a game they controlled.

The biggest question mark for the U.S. heading into the tournament was in goal, but Alex Nedeljkovic (CAR) has been a true number one, having stopped 54 of 58 shots he has seen. Brandon Halverson (NYR) has stood in goal for a game-and-half, having allowed just one goal against on 37 shots. The defense has been active, and it is hard to argue that there has been a better pairing in the tournament than that of Brandon Carlo (BOS) and Zach Werenski (CBJ), who seem to be on the ice for every thinkable minute of any and every pressure-filled situation.

Raising some red flags is that, after the first line, which only now seems to have found its permanent right wing in Colin White (OTT), this team just hasn’t gotten offense when it mattered most. Alex Debrincat may lead the OHL in goal-scoring, but he has been a non-factor at this tournament. Had it not been for the 10-1 victory over a dead-tired Switzerland, many players on this team would possibly still be without a point. Hard workers the whole lot of them, but few who will put the puck in the net when it matters most.

Synopsis: The Czechs won’t go out easy, but the U.S. has a strong skating defense that should have little problem keeping up with the few quicker forwards the Czechs will throw on the ice. In addition, it is hard to believe that Vanecek and his defense will be able to contain the USA’s first line. Expect a close but safe U.S. victory.

Medal Round

Regardless of how things turn out and who faces whom, true justice would only be served by seeing a Sweden vs. Finland final. After Finland’s gold just two World Juniors ago in Sweden, there is an incredible desire to return the favor on behalf of the Swedes. And truth be told, what hardcore hockey fan wouldn’t want to see this scenario possibly play out as these two teams are as good as any and chock full of future NHL talent.

Nonetheless, according to our predictions for the quarterfinals, their meeting this winter won’t take place. Sweden will see a rematch and Russia will have to take the North American route to a medal game.

Expect to ultimately see Russia battle a North American squad for gold while Sweden looks to wrap up bronze after failing to do so last winter.

Follow Chapin Landvogt on Twitter via @Csomichapin

 

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