The preliminary round of the IIHF 2012 U18 World Championships concluded with a bang as the US downed Canada in yet another classic episode between the North American rivals. A back and forth tilt was ended when Matt Lane popped in an empty-net goal in the 60th minute, his second point of the night and sixth of the tournament.
In general, there are no big surprises at the top of the two groups as teams USA and Sweden went undefeated in their respective groups, each earning a bye in the first round of the playoffs. In particular, the USA has been a statistical beast so far, having won the first three games on the strength of three shutouts, two by Collin Olson and one by Jared Rutledge. The defensive concept of arguably – and statistically – the most routine defensive unit of the tournament has paid off in spades and the three goals scored by Canada last night were the only goals the US has allowed thus far. Forward Connor Carrick is the only player on the team to feature a minus rating (minus one). The team’s top offensive contributions have come from the likes of the aforementioned Lane, Quentin Shore and '95-born Seth Jones (each with five points), a top-pairing defenseman who has been nothing short of impressive throughout.
While the US has once again displayed their endurance and continuity, Sweden has gone about scoring 20 goals in the four games, taking a scoring-by-committee approach. Sebastian Collberg and Alexander Wennberg have led the way with six points each while 11 players have three or more points. Very strong has been the goaltending of draft-eligible Oscar Dansk, who sports a 1.00 GAA and .962 save percentage. Sweden has played a very confident, mobile game. The two teams remain the heavy favorites to meet in the gold medal game.
While Sweden and the USA get an extra day off, the first playoff game will feature Finland versus Germany. The Germans have made the playoffs despite a 5-4 loss to Latvia, which came on the tails of a highly emotional 4-2 victory over Russia, by far the biggest upset of the tournament thus far. Despite being outshot 42-29 and down 1-0 after ten minutes, the Germans surprised the Russians several times in taking a 3-1 lead, one they’d never relinquish. A 6-2 victory over Switzerland was the difference in allowing Germany to squeeze into the playoffs ahead of Latvia, a team that garnered the same record, but a worse goal difference ratio. Very exciting for Germany are not only the weighty contributions of defensemen Eric Stephan (three assists and plus four) and Tim Bender (two goals and four points), but also the seven points chipped in by 95-born center Leon Draisaitl.
Finland, on the other hand, lost a nail-biting 4-0 game to the US to kick off the tournament, allowing all four goals in the third period after two scoreless periods. They then proceeded to win the next three games including an impressive 4-2 victory over Canada. A very routine and mobile defensive unit combined with a tenacious group of forwards has kept opponents on their heels. Ironically, the highly-touted Teuvo Teravainen and Juuso Ikonen didn’t join their countrymen until after the loss to the US, leaving many to wonder if they wouldn’t have possibly been the difference in that game? As such, the Fins are the heavy favorites for tomorrow’s tilt, the winner of which will face Sweden Friday.
Tomorrow evening’s second contest will be a showdown between international rivals Russia and Canada, a repeat of last year’s bronze medal game, which the Nail Yakupov-led Russians were able to decide in favor of the Sbornaja in Crimmitschau.
Canada continues to feature the nominally best line-up in the tournament, at least from a NHL drafting standpoint, and its stars, namely Matt Dumba (with a tournament leading eight points), Kerby Rychel (six points) and Hunter Shinkaruk (three points in as many games) are also leading the way. Still, the team has somewhat battled the yearly transition of seeing its members fly halfway across the planet and play with a bunch of players whom many of the players might only know by name. The loss against Finland showed some holes in Canada’s defensive fabric despite a strong performance by goaltender Matt Murray and the team just wasn’t able to stave off a US team that just doesn’t stop attacking in a 5-3 loss, despite 1-0 and 2-1 leads.
The Russians have also had a difficult time of things, having handily defeated both Latvia and Switzerland just to see a letdown result in the aforementioned 4-2 loss to Germany. The team just couldn’t muster any offense against Sweden in the last game of the preliminary round, getting shutout 2-0 after having scored 14 goals in the previous three games. Despite a 1.75 GAA and .938 save percentage, Andrei Vasilevski has been in goal for two losses, something few NHL scouts might have thought possible heading into the tournament. With a forward and defensive group that simply doesn’t feature the depth or explosiveness of the teams Vasilevski has won medals with at past U18 and U20 tournaments, he’ll have to play a decisive role in shutting down a hard-driving Canadian team if Russia is to make it to the medal round. Things may become bleak if Canada can shut down the trio of Anton Slepyshev, Daniil Zharkov (each five points) and hulking Bogdan Yakimov (six points).
One way or the other, this is a battle of two teams that have much to prove – and one every scout at the tournament will be watching very closely.
Relegation round bound
The Czech Republic has experienced the biggest disappointment at this year’s tournament, finding itself in the relegation round despite being the tournament’s host. The team opened the event with an 8-4 victory over newcomer Denmark only to lose the next three games in an embarrassing fashion, with each loss coming by four or more goals. The team knew it wouldn’t have some of its best players for this tournament, but Dominik Volek and super-talent Jakub Vrana just couldn’t get the team to muster enough offense to compete while top prospect Marek Langhamer proved not to be the expected match-winner in goal. Fortunately for the Czechs, they are taking the three points from the 8-4 victory over Denmark into the relegation round.
The same is the case for Latvia, who defeated the winless Swiss 4-2 in the preliminary round. Without a doubt, the Latvians are probably the most successful team this tournament has seen find its way into the relegation round. This came on the heels of the aforementioned win, a 5-4 victory over Germany, and a fairly close 3-1 loss to Sweden. It wasn’t enough. A number of players have risen to the occasion and made the Latvians a very refreshing nemesis for all unsuspecting opponents. Should either the Czechs (facing Switzerland) and/or the Latvians (facing Denmark) win their respective games tomorrow evening, they’ll have nothing more to worry about with respect to maintaining their standing heading into Friday’s game against each other.
Things are looking much murkier for both Switzerland and Denmark. Whereas the Danes came into the tournament looking like the heavy underdogs, they have given it their all and are highly concentrated on making this part of the tournament one to remember, much like their men’s team has been doing in relegation rounds for years now.
Switzerland has downright been the disappointment of this tournament, having not only lost every game, but often finding themselves out of the games before the second period was over. After a close 4-2 loss to Latvia to kick things off, the team lost the last three games by four or more goals, including a resounding 6-2 defeat at the hands of arch rival Germany. Now, they’ll have to get back on track and put those losses aside, as it looks like everything will come down to the last game of the round Friday night, when the Kristoffer Lauridsen-led Danes will take on the Thomas Studer-led Swiss.