The preliminary round has come and gone at the 2013 U18 World Junior Championship, and Groups A and B each featured one fairly dominant team.
After an emotional 4-3 victory over the USA in front of Vladimir Putin and a huge, partisan crowd, Russia went on to win the rest of their group games to remain undefeated in the tournament. Despite the star power presented by the name Valery Nichushkin, widely considered the most enticing prospect here for the upcoming NHL Draft, the names Pavel Buchnevich, Vladimir Tkachev, Ivan Barbashev and even Nikolai Glukhov have been turning heads and showing up most frequently on the score sheet. Tkachev leads the team with four goals and nine points in four games.
Group B saw Team Canada start off humbly with a late 4-1 win over Slovakia, but it then improved game by game, ultimately defeating Sweden 6-0 in the battle for first place in the division. Connor McDavid has been the story for Canada, having already officially gathered five goals and 11 points in the four games played so far. He hasn’t been alone in providing offense, though, as six other players have registered a point-per-game or better.
Here in Sochi/Adler, the feeling is that these two teams are on a collision course for gold. Of course, that won’t be determined until the playoff round has concluded.
Finland vs. Switzerland
While Switzerland has looked good on several occasions, they’ve been outclassed on a few others and, whether points have been won or not, their best game was a 4-1 victory over Slovakia. Inconsistency has plagued them from game to game, and scoring has been hard to come by. 16-year-old Swiss forward Denis Malgin has collected two goals and four points, all the while acting as the most creative figure for the Swiss side. Defensemen Phil Baltisberger, Xeno Busser, Mirco Mueller and Jonas Siegenthaler – all of whom are under the watchful eyes of the NHL’s talent seekers – have done more than yeoman’s work. But effort often has just not been enough to put a hold on the high-octane offenses, as was evident in the 10-1 thrashing at the hands of Canada. The Swiss defense has, however, stunted the teams that don’t produce much offensive pressure, thus making the meeting with Finland an interesting one.
Finland has been strong and played well against every opponent, only having lost 3-1 (including an empty net goal) to Russia and having beaten the U.S. 2-1 in a game where they didn’t even generate 20 shots on goal, but offense has been hard to come by. Who needs it, though, with a guy like Juuse Saros in goal. The young Finn has been nothing short of spectacular (1.50 goals-against average and .959 save percentage) and has needed to be as particularly Russia and the USA peppered shots at him with aplomb. Underager Kasperi Kapanen has led the attack with four goals and six points while Artturi Lehkonen, a top prospect for the upcoming NHL Draft, has two goals and four points in the tournament.
In light of Switzerland’s problems in scoring goals, and Saros’ tendency to prevent them better than just about anyone else, we’re going to tip on Finland handily moving on to the semi-final.
Sweden vs. USA
In a match-up that has taken place in the gold medal final the past two years, a strong Swedish club will face-off against a U.S. team that has had the better half of puck possession in every preliminary game, but was only able to defeat Latvia (7-1) and the Czech Republic (4-3).
The Swedes are coming off a stinging 6-0 loss to Canada after having walked over Germany, Switzerland and Slovakia, respectively. For all their flash and dash in the first three games, much of which came from the Nylander-Wallmark-de la Rose and Karlsson-Burakovsky-Lindblom lines, the team could do little against a Canadian outfit that thwarted them at every turn. Not to be forgotten is that Sweden has lost two straight gold medal games to the USA at this tournament and even at the most recent U20 WJC. On top of it all, this very club lost in OT to the U.S. in a winter tournament held in Sweden two months ago. Whether this latest bit of history will have a psychological impact on the thoroughly talented team may be the U.S.’s greatest advantage. Positionally speaking, the team showed no particular weaknesses before its match against Canada, as the goaltending was timely, the defense was solid in most all aspects and the forwards gave opposing defenses fits.
The U.S. team hasn’t looked like its forerunners of recent years. It generated 15 goals in four games, giving up only 10 in the process. But take away the 7-1 ‘gimme’ over Latvia, and that GF-GA ratio shows a much more telling – and unfortunate – tale. The game against Finland proved symptomatic of Team USA's biggest problems as the team carried the play for a good 85% of the time but couldn’t find a way to beat star goalie Saros more than once, only to allow Finland to score on what some would deem unnecessary counterattacks. In every game to date, the U.S. team has controlled the tempo, even for the better part of the 4-3 loss against Russia. But they have made critical and uncharacteristic mistakes in all four games, having allowed every opponent at least several odd-man rushes in the other direction, which cost them dearly in the 2-1 loss to Finland and almost cost them dearly in the 4-3 victory over of a tough Czech Republic squad. Goaltender Thatcher Demko hasn’t seen too many pucks and chances are that any draft stock he may possess hasn’t risen in this tournament. A big problem has been that the fewer pucks he sees, the less solid his play has been. Still, Coach Granato and the players, including top scorers Tyler Motte and JT Compher (each with six points), have said time and again that they will not alter their game plan, as USA Hockey has spent many years being successful by doing just what they’re doing.
This is surely the most interesting and anticipated of the first round playoff games. If Sweden can return to the game it showed before the 6-0 loss, it looks like the USA's dominance of this tournament will have come to an end. However, Canada was the only strong-attacking team Sweden has faced so far, and that proved to be the one thing this Swedish team didn’t yet have an answer for. All indications are that the U.S. will continue its onslaught philosophy and we’re tipping on them finding a way to slip by Sweden to the semi-finals.
Canada vs. Czech Republic
No team has played so well but had so little to show for it as has the Czech Republic. The entire line-up has given all it can and the top three lines have done things that were critical for victory whenever necessary, but victory was only tasted in a 7-0 romp over Latvia.
Both Patrik Zdrahal and Dominik Kubalik, each having spent this past season with a CHL club, have been effective in gathering five points apiece for the Czechs, and the team has gotten offensive contributions from five of their seven defensemen. The Czechs continue to exhibit a feel-good attitude and have given every opponent more than their money’s worth, even if tangible results can’t be seen in the standings. Goaltender Rene Svoboda has carried the bulk of the load in manning the net and has a strong .908 save percentage to show for it. Being used to playing bigger name countries, one will have to expect the team to approach this playoff game with the same mentality they showed against the USA and Russia.
Still, the Czechs will now face the statistically most dominant team in the tournament. Canada heads into the quarterfinal game having only allowed three goals against to date. The team has brought its usual rough-and-tumble style of play to Sochi, but has also found a way to suffocate opponents into submission, as was most prevalently seen in its 10-1 and 6-0 shellackings of Switzerland and Sweden, respectively. Scoring has been plentiful and, aside from the outstanding contributions by Connor McDavid, every line has contributed in all three zones and not a player on the team is a minus player. A great majority of the players are expected to be drafted this summer or are top prospects for the 2014 and 2015 drafts. While Canada often brings a talented collection of young men in this situation, they haven’t always been able to gel as a team as well and on such short notice as this group has.
As courageous and solid as the Czechs have played, there won’t likely be a favorable conclusion to their personal David vs. Goliath story. The size, depth, and overall skill level and wherewithal just isn’t there to beat one of Canada’s best-ever U18 entries.
Russia vs. Germany
The story has been a great one for Russia to this point in the tournament. With their biggest challenge in the first round having come on opening night against the USA, a thrilling 4-3 victory and clearly the tournament’s highlight thus far, the Russian machine has rolled over its opponents ever since, despite courageous efforts by Finland and Czech Republic.
Russia's top line of Tkachev-Nichushkin-Buchnevich has been lights out while secondary scoring has come from lines two and three, as well. Even more exciting has been the outstanding play of 2014 draft-eligible goalie Igor Shestyorkin who has been just about unbeatable. Despite a modest 2.52 goals-against average, his .940 save percentage is nothing short of excellent and, save for the first 10 minutes of the opening game, hardly a team has been able to get anything by him. Of course, he’s getting some great help from a very physical defensive group led by Rushan Rafikov, Nikolai Demidov and Nikolai Glukhov (seven points), who have all played as though they have something to prove. Not lacking in attitude and the stats to back it up has been Pavel Buchnevich, who has kept opposition defenses on their heels right from the first drop of the puck. The team’s spiritual leader, if you will, has been Ivan Barbashev, who has put on a show in all three zones while having chipped in three goals and three assists.
Facing them is a German team that is not lacking in confidence after a crucial 6-3 victory over Slovakia to ensure their placement in the top division and playoff participation. The club features no less than four returnees from last year’s team which beat Russia 4-2 in the Czech Republic. As such, the team has no problem walking into the Bolshoy Arena to face Russia in front of what will surely be a crowd of over 6,000 attendees. Germany has featured one line that has been able to skate with anyone – CHL players Dominik Kahun and Leon Draisaitl together with DNL sensation Parker Tuomie, whose name North Americans would best get accustomed to as soon as possible. Germany also managed to only lose 3-1 to Canada in preliminary round play, something they saw as a moral victory. The coaching staff will have the team giving 110% in its own end and waiting to consequently make use of counterattack opportunities and a power play that has, at times, looked downright impressive.
With the game on national television, excellent coaching from former NHL defenseman Igor Kravchuk, and a squad that has shown little to no weaknesses, it’s downright inconceivable that an upset is in the making at this point. Russia is going for gold this year.
Slovakia vs. Latvia – Best-of-Three Series
The change in tournament format will see last year’s survivor face the country that just gained promotion into this tournament. Ask folks here and you’ll get a variety of impressions as to which team has the advantage in this series.
Truth be told, the Latvians played pretty much their best games against the USA and Russia, having ultimately lost both by a heavy margin (7-1 and 10-2 respectively). Those came on the tail of 7-0 losses to both Finland and the Czech Republic. Slovakia has also failed to gain a point to date, but put in excellent performances against Canada (4-1 loss) and Sweden (5-2 loss), only to ironically look completely out of their league in losses to Switzerland (4-1) and Germany (6-3).
At the end of the day, goals have been harder to come by for Latvia and Slovakia has ultimately shown itself to have a slightly better defensive game. Both teams have a first line that generates the bulk of the teams’ offense. Unless Bukarts and Golovkovs, who lead Latvia with two points apeice, can up the ante, there’s little indicating that Latvia will be able to retain their spot in the top division. Even in the losses, the Slovakian lines of Cehlarik-Rehak-Lantosi and Zilka-Soltes-Varga have been able to consistently create chances. Neither team has seen their goalies step up to the challenge, so whoever can generate the most pressure up front will likely send their opponent into Division 1A. We’re tipping on Latvia facing likely relegation.
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