Plenty of intrigue heading into medal, relegation rounds at 2013 World Juniors

By Chapin Landvogt

Nail Yakupov - Russia

Photo: Although Edmonton Oilers prospect Nail Yakupov has generated a bit of offense for Russia at the 2013 WJC, he has not been the offensive force he will need to be if Russia is to take the gold medal (courtesy of Terry Wilson/OHL Images)

For hockey fans across the globe, the preliminary round of the 2013 IIHF WJC has been just about everything anyone had ever hoped for. There’s been no lack of tension, rivalries, intrigue and background stories that have come together to make this tournament the type that fans everywhere crave.

The expected star of the tournament has been just that, as the Edmonton Oilers' Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has produced three goals and 11 points in just four games, albeit with five of those coming in the initial 9-3 shellacking of Germany.

Nugent-Hopkins’ future teammate and Russia’s most important piece of the puzzle, Nail Yakupov, has been at the middle of the media hoopla here in Bashkortostan, the republic that neighbors his native Tatarstan. Although the only Russian loss so far has come at the hands of the Canadians, a 4-1 final in the last game of the preliminary round, Yakupov has only produced one goal and four points despite seemingly leading the team’s forwards in ice time. In fact, Russia has only produced 6 goals in total against Slovakia, the USA and Canada, respectively, something that in particular has the Russian media questioning the team’s ability to generate enough offense to go all the way.

Meanwhile, Group A saw returning champion Sweden take the group somewhat handily despite a late rally by Finland in the final game of group play, which ended 7-4 in Sweden’s favor. Had Finland won, they’d have avoided the relegation round, which is where they now surprisingly find themselves along with group opponent Latvia and Group B competitors Slovakia and Germany. This has proven to be the biggest surprise of the tournament. While Canada and Sweden now have byes into the semifinals, the quarterfinals will feature the US facing the Czech Republic while Russia will square off with Switzerland.

Looking Ahead

Russia vs. Switzerland

It’s hard to believe for some, but Switzerland has done the unexpected in finding themselves facing off against the Russians in the quarterfinals. They lost three times in Group A play, but not one of those losses came in regulation time. A convincing 7-2 victory over Latvia should surely have been seen by all opponents as a warning call.

Now, Switzerland, who lost 7-5 to Russia in pre-tourney exhibition play, will have a crack at a team they cast out of the 2010 WJC with a 3-2 OT victory, a recent memory few hockey fans have forgotten. Can they repeat such an upset? The team has been getting solid goaltending from Melvin Nyffeler, and just about every defenseman on the team, quite a big group of boys at that, has contributed at least one point, with the Everett Silvertips' Mirco Mueller sporting a +5 rating while the Blainville-Boisbriand Aramada's Christian Marti has a +4 rating. Up front, 8 or more forwards have three or more points. Mike Kunzle leads the team with three goals and the Gueph Storm's Tanner Richard leads with four assists.

Russia’s high-octane attack hasn’t quite produced as expected, save for a 7-0 victory over Germany. Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Nikita Kucherov, Yaroslav Kosov and defenseman Albert Yarullin lead the way with three goals apiece. Surprisingly quiet have been two big men who were supposed to be central coordinators of the attack, namely Buffalo Sabres prospect Mikhail Grigorenko and top-ranked 2013 draft eligible Valeri Nichushkin, who have all of four assists between the two of them. In addition, Nichushkin was tossed out of the last game for a hit-from-behind call that knocked Canadian defenseman Tyler Wootherspoon out of the game. This has now led to a one game suspension, which won’t help Russia’s cause in the quarterfinal.

No doubt though, the story for Russia has been a very stingy defense and excellent play by both Tampa Bay prospect Andrey Vasilevski (0.96 GAA and .973 SV%) and Saskatoon’s Andrey Makarov (2.02 GAA and .955 SV%). The two goalies have been outstanding in holding other teams at bay and have been tested considerably, especially by the USA and Canada.

Although the general thought pattern is that this offense, like so many Russian teams before it, should be hammering the opponents into submission, it’s actually been the defensive play of the team that has Russia where it’s at. That can’t change at this phase if this team has serious aspirations for gold, because there’s no telling when and if the Russian juggernaut will be scoring more than one or two goals a game against similar tournament peers.

Expectations

If Russia wasn’t going to finish at the top of the group, this is probably the best possible match-up they could have realistically expected. Still, they’ve seen Switzerland in pre-tourney play and know all-too-well that the Swiss, who haven’t lost a game in regulation yet, are not to be underestimated, as was evident at the 2010 WJC. The Swiss play a rough game and they have some real bruisers, particularly on the back end. They’re a tricky team to play, too, as guys like Tanner Richard, Dario Simion, Sven Andrighetto, Dean Kukan, Mirco Mueller, Christian Marti, Lucas Balmelli and Christoph Bertschy bring no lack of skill and international experience to the table and can quickly make a team pay the price for its mistakes. This can be said twofold for Russia’s group of highly skilled forwards, as well, and if the back-end and goaltending continues to be as solid as it has been, it’s hard to believe that the Russians would allow an upset to take place at this juncture in front of their own fans. Still, stranger things have happened.

The winner of this game will face Sweden in the semifinals.

USA vs. Czech Republic

The Czechs opened the tournament on a bad note, allowing the Swedes to jump out to an early lead and ultimately decide the game in Sweden's favor, 4-1. Since then, the Czech team has often played some excellent and inspired hockey. The key game was a 3-1 victory against Finland, which the team celebrated as if they had just taken the gold medal. They were only able to beat Latvia 4-2, first breaking a 2-2 deadlock in the third period, and also had to survive a late Swiss comeback to win it 4-3 in overtime on a wrap-around goal by San Jose Sharks prospect Tomas Hertl, his only tally to date. The two key players for the Czech Republic have been Red Deer Rebel goaltender Patrik Bartosak (1.98 GAA and .924 SV% in three games) and St. Louis Blues prospect Dmitri Jaskin (two goals, three assists and a +5 rating), who has also displayed quite a physical presence to go along with his offense. To date, the undrafted Petr Sidlik (Victoriaville) has been leading the way with four assists, a +2 rating and boatloads of ice time.

The USA has been what everyone expects in blowing away Germany and Slovakia while playing two barnburners against Russia and Canada, both of which were lost by a 2-1 score. The team remains the one club that no-one wants to face in the semifinals, so it’s safe to say that the collective WJC playoff world will be rooting against them.

Few teams pose the goaltending, defensive wherewithal, and forward lines with the depth and tempo that the US has. In addition to being a team that will usually outwork its opponents, there is no lack of skill in forwards JT Miller, John Gaudreau, Vince Trocheck, Tyler Biggs, Sean Kuraly and Rocco Grimaldi. Despite all this, the offensive contributions from captain Jake McCabe, Connor Murphy, Mike Reilly, Shayne Gostisbehere and especially Jacob Trouba (four goals) and possible #1 overall prospect Seth Jones cannot be overlooked as they have a combined eight goals, six assists and +15 between them. Moreover, hardly a team in this tournament is as physically demanding and strong at protecting the puck as the USA. To top it off, their transition game is second to none and kept even Canada and Russia on their heels for the majority of the 2-1 losses.

Expectations

No doubt an intriguing match, the Czech defense has not always been on top of its game while the US and its goalie John Gibson (1.93 GAA and .936 SV%) have given viewers little reason to believe that a breakdown is coming, even if the game against Slovakia was rough around the edges with respect to playing solid, consistent hockey. The attack has been consistent in pressuring opponents and the Czechs realize that two 2-1 losses to Russia and Canada hardly mean a thing in this tournament, especially in light of the USA's 8-0 and 9-3 drubbings of Germany and Slovakia, respectively.

When all is said and done, the Czechs will have to play the game of their lives to move past the semifinals, and goaltender Patrik Bartosak will have to be at the center of that. However, the Czechs will face constant waves of pressure and attackers that challenge their defensemen both physically and with speed. It’s hard to think they’ll hold out against that successfully over 60 minutes while also finding enough opportunities to solve John Gibson.

The winner of this game will face Canada in the semifinals.

Canada and Sweden

Canada has been as expected at this tournament in winning all of its preliminary round games. The team featuring the most NHL Draft picks and about the highest rated upcoming draftees has shown some questionable intensity in allowing both Germany and Slovakia to score three goals while also often looking as if they there were on their heels against the USA, but the team convincingly defeated Russia and looks to be on par, warmed up and ready to go for the final round, especially now that Boone Jenner has joined the party. Of special note is that Ryan Strome has been the perfect complement to Ryan Nugent-Hopkins up the middle and Malcolm Subban respectively only allowed one goal against when facing the US and Russia, thus silencing a number of critics heading into the tournament.

Reigning champion Sweden headed into the tournament without top NHL prospects Jonas Brodin, Oscar Klefbom and Mika Zibanejad. They then lost NHL Draft picks Hampus Lindholm and Rasmus Bengtsson. Problem? Not to date!

The young blueliners such as draft-eligible Robert Hagg, Linus Arnesson and particularly Emil Djuse have stepped up. Draftees Mikael Vikstrand (four points and  a +4 rating) and Tom Nilsson (two points and +2 rating) have served as the team’s backbone. The offense continues to quietly deliver, even if opponents Switzerland and Finland gave the team a good scare. Still, the team has not faced any of the USA, Canada and Russia and one has to ask if they’ll be able to pick up their play accordingly when faced with the pressure those teams will generate. Can Montreal Canadiens prospect Sebastian Collberg, Viktor Arvidsson, Anaheim Ducks prospect Rickard Rakell and Dallas Stars prospect Emil Molin (all with five points) continue to produce when the bigger name opponents come along? Washington Capitals first rounder, Filip Forsberg, also has four points to date and is always a threat whereas top 2013 draft-eligible prospect Elias Lindholm, who already has over 20 points for his SEL club Brynas, has been a bit quiet with just three points and a zero rating to date. In addition, the goaltending, handled primarily by Joel Lassinantti to date, will have to reckon with seeing more pucks than has been the case so far.

Never to be underestimated, the Tre Kronor entry has had more solid and deeper clubs in recent years, at least on paper.

The Relegation Round

After pre-tournament victories over both the US and Canada, hardly a hockey soul could imagine that Finland would find itself heading to the relegation round after preliminary play. For some reason, as much as the team has been able to generate offense thanks in good part to Calgary Flames prospect Markus Granlund and Buffalo Sabres prospect Joel Armia (both five points), and Chicago Blackhawks prospect Teuvo Teravainen and 2013 draft prospect Rasmus Ristolainen (both four points), Columbus prospect goaltender Joonas Korpisalo (3.21 goals-against average and .865 save percentage) and the defensive group in front of him have not been able to keep the puck out of the net when it was most important. The team also has found itself having to dig itself out of a hole on almost a nightly basis to date.

Nonetheless, the team features so much talent and routine that the relegation round should not pose a threat, if indeed it can get over the disappointment of not playing for a medal, something many expected heading into the WJC.

Team Slovakia entered the tournament with a bang, first losing to Russia 3-2 in overtime. It then had a 3-1 lead over Canada, before it ran out of gas, ultimately dropping that game 6-3. A 2-1 OT victory against Germany was a must, although the team had thoroughly entered the game thinking it would get the three points. The team then got romped in a rather messy game against the USA, where it was clear that the tank was empty. The big game at this point will of course be against Latvia, as Finland poses an opponent that will test the Slovaks to the limit. The team’s relative success has, as expected, revolved around 2013 draft-eligible Marko Dano (five points) and winger Matus Matis (three goals). Otherwise, you really don’t know which Slovakia you’ll see on any given day, although Adam Nagy has firmly planted himself as the team’s starter despite a 3.99 GAA.

Germany has had an even tougher time of things than had been expected, even if the 2-1 OT loss to Slovakia has to be seen as a positive development. The team also scored three times against Canada, but nothing was cooking against either Russia or the USA. The Shawinigan Cataractes' Marvin Cupper is the man in goal and he’s faced more shots than anybody in this tournament, at times looking excellent, at others looking quite the victim. The only weapons of note up front are found on line one, which features Edmonton prospect Tobias Rieder, the Sudbury Wolves' Dominik Kahun and the Prince Albert Raiders' Leon Draisaitl, each with two points to date. The story for Germany, however, has been a defensive corps that clearly is not, on whole, able to skate and make safe decisions at this level. Despite size, the skating deficiencies have been very noticeable and something that the better-skating Fins and Latvians should be able to work with. In addition, this deficiency has led to the team taking its fair share of penalties. If the skating issue and its side effects don’t change in the next two games, the team is looking at relegation.

Of course, to be relegated, the Germans would have to lose to Latvia, who is entering the relegation round with zero points. Goalies Ivars Punnenovs and Elvis Merzlikins just haven’t been able to prevent goals. This is disappointing, because the skaters have done all they could to block shots and passes with regularity. Only defenseman Edgars Siksna has more than two points (three assists to be exact) and three skaters already have a -5 rating. Still, the Edmonton Oil Kings' Edgars Kulda, Minnesota-Mankato forward Teodors Blugers and super underager Rihard Bukarts could prove quite a challenge for Germany should all be healthy to play.

Expectations

Finland enters this round with three points, Slovakia with two and Germany with one. As such, Latvia has an uphill battle and no matter what happens, they cannot afford to lose to Germany in regulation time in what will be the last game of the tourney for both teams. This should ensure for a bit of intrigue and excitement, which could already be generated if either Germany or Latvia is able to upset Finland or slip by Slovakia, respectively.

You can follow Chapin Landvogt's tweets from the WJC via @csomichapin