2014 U18 Playoff Preview: Canada, USA top groupings heading into playoff round

By Chapin Landvogt

Yevgeni Svechnikov - Team Russia

Photo: Team Russia forward Yevgeni Svechnikov (L), shown here competing at last year’s U18 tournament, has been the top offensive player for Russia at the 2014 U18 World Championship (courtesy of ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)

The preliminary round of the 2014 IIHF U18 World Championship is over and the playoff match-ups are set. Despite the odd surprise performances to start off the tournament, the teams have finished off group play in a manner conducive with most expectations coming in. Take a look at who’s up against whom in the playoffs and who you should expect to move on to the next round.

USA vs. Slovakia

With a moral victory coming in the form of a big 3-2 penalty shot loss to Russia, the Slovaks played a German team determined to send Slovakia to the relegation round. Just the opposite happened. The Slovaks resiliently did what was necessary to gain a 4-1 victory over Germany and ensure itself playoff participation. This was then followed by a very tight 2-1 loss to Canada and a lackluster 6-2 loss to Sweden. Still, no-one in the Slovak program is hanging his head.

Offense has once again been hard to come by for the Slovaks. Juraj Mily leads the group with three goals and four points, while only Matej Palocko and Kristian Pospisil have managed just two points apiece. They top the club in scoring. The team has nonetheless lived by its ability to play a tight game when needed and kept its opponents to the outside in their own zone. Some smart decisions have also come with the puck and none of the forwards are afraid to move with the puck, often either making a good pass or dumping the puck accordingly. The impression the team has given is that it is well-coached, is fully aware of what its weaknesses are, and knows how to keep those weaknesses from popping up too often. Moreover, the team has played its best games against Canada and Russia, two teams expected to contend for a medal.

Team USA started off the tournament with a loss of gargantuan proportions, dominating a game against Switzerland only to allow the pesky Swiss to score three unanswered third period goals. This shock led some to believe that the US had finally brought a team that was maybe just cocky enough to beat itself.

But the loss to Switzerland would be the only one the US suffered in convincingly gaining its way to first place in the group. Clearly the best team in the Lappeenranta group when it comes to puck possession and establishing offensive zone time, scoring goals hasn’t been easy. The team has often looked like it will only shoot when the opportunity is just perfect enough and this has allowed teams to set up a box-style defense and just give their all in defending the slot area. On the other end, OHL Goaltender of the Year Alex Nedeljkovic has had several shaky outings, facing relatively few shots, but allowing goals that have been uncanny enough to have a strong psychological effect on those playing in front of him.

The majority of the offense has come from the first line, with Jack Eichel (5 points) and Sonny Milano (6 points) having done the bulk of the damage. However, there’s probably not a line in the tournament that gets more ice time and Alex Tuch, considered by some to be a top 15 draft pick this summer, has only one assist in the tournament.

All other lines have been inconsistent in a contributing manner, although offense has come from a number of players, with underager Kyle Connor having already contributed four goals. Very active from the blueline have been Brandon Fortunato and Jack Dougherty (each with three points) and especially super talent Noah Hanifin, whose four points don’t begin to describe the opportunities he’s been able to create. On the whole, the team has simply made too little of its opportunities while the defense has more chances against than in years past. In two of the four games, Nedeljkovic just hasn’t had the type of calm influence that could really make this team a hands down favorite for gold.

Tip: Had the Slovaks been able to show the same fight against Sweden as they did against Russia and Canada, it’d be safe to say that the USA has its work cut out for it. However, the U.S. is peaking at a time where the Slovaks look to be a bit worn out from all the battling. As long as the U.S. scores three or more goals, there shouldn’t be any danger of the Slovaks giving them a scare in what should be the easiest victory in the quarterfinals.

Canada vs. Switzerland

On paper, the Canadians are a hands-down favorite for the gold, despite not being able to make use of otherwise eligible top talent like Sam Bennett and Connor McDavid. Despite a boatload of players who we can expect to see taken in this summer’s draft, including snipers Jake Virtanen (4 points) and Brendan Perlini (3 points), as well as some dandies for the 2015 draft class such as Travis Konecny and Matt Barzal, the team just hasn’t been as offensively dominant as it could be. It started the tournament with a convincing 3-1 victory over a good Swedish team, and then needed three goals in the last five minutes of the game against Germany to win 5-2. That was followed by an almost inexplicably close 2-1 victory over the Slovaks and a tight, 3-2 penalty shot loss to Russia.

The lack of overwhelming offense has given rise to a belief that if starter Mason McDonald, who has been very good with a .936 save percentage and a 1.62 goals-against average, should have an off day in the playoffs, the team could run into trouble. Although that typical hard-nosed, high pressure Canadian play is just as evident in this team as in many before it, there are times where things haven’t clicked and some uncharacteristic mistakes have allowed teams to stay in the game for longer periods of time than was necessary. In addition, the star power of the many players expected to be taken within the first three rounds of the 2014 NHL Draft just hasn’t been evident, despite a line-up filled with plus ratings. A pleasant surprise continues to be defender Travis Sanheim, who has three assists and a +3 rating.

For Switzerland, this has been an amazing tournament that started with a huge 4-2 victory over the USA. That was followed by a tight 2-1 loss to host Finland, an unnecessarily tight 3-2 victory over Denmark, and yet another tight game in which the team lost 4-2 to the Czech Republic. What has been very apparent is that despite great efforts from all-around underager Jonas Siegenthaler and draft-eligible big boy Simon Kindschi on the blueline, this tournament has been all about the first line, namely Denis Malgin (three goals, six points, +6) and especially Kevin Fiala (three goals, eight points, +6). The two have shown incredible chemistry and have been dangerous just about any time they’ve been on the ice.

Fiala in particular has shown a skill level and an ability to take charge of a game that no other player in the tournament not named Nylander has been able to do. His skating, vision, passing, and shot have confounded every opponent and left fans of the games hungering for every next shift. His ice time has been incredible and his will to almost singlehandedly drive his nation to victory has been topped by no one in this tournament.

Tip: Despite the heroics and hard play, the Swiss just don’t have the depth beyond the first line to beat Canada over a 60 minute game. They did manage to push Canada to overtime in last summer’s Ivan Hlinka tournament, but this group has given its all to get to this point and the first game was and will remain the highlight of the tournament. For Canada, it’s time to do what it annually seems to do best, and pick things up in the playoffs. The names and pure talent are there and not a team in the tournament has Canada’s depth and overall drive. Unless Fiala and Malgin have more tricks up their sleeves, Canada will be dismissing them in these quarterfinals.

Sweden vs. Finland

It’s a rematch of sorts from the U20 WJC gold medal game, this time at a lower level and at another juncture in the tournament. It’s not a match-up either country would like to have already at this point, but that’s how the cookie has crumbled and the archrival Nordic countries will go to battle knowing that whoever loses is out of the tournament. Last spring at this time, Sweden found itself bowing out in the quarterfinals, having unceremoniously lost to the USA 4-0, while Finland went on to defeat host Russia for the bronze medal. It is clear that the Swedes, who are returning several players from last spring’s entry, have no plans on heading home after this quarterfinal.

For host Finland, the crowd has been just about as good as expected in 70,000-populated Lappeenranta. The team has felt like they’ve had that sixth man with them at each home game. Still, it wasn’t enough to beat the Czech Republic (4-3 loss on penalty shots) or the USA (4-3 loss, allowing Eichel to score with just 1:15 to go in the third period). Both games required a lot of the Finnish squad, which has played tough in every game so far, having opened the tournament with a 6-1 victory over Denmark and then a close 2-1 regulation victory over Switzerland.

Despite a healthy amount of offense, the team has had a hard time getting goals created on more than a rebound here or an individual effort there. The team has also been guilty of more turnovers than a club with medal ambitions should be making and opponents have been getting a fair amount of chances. Many of these chances have thankfully been eaten up by Kaapo Kahkonen, who nonetheless has had his bad moments, particularly on the first and fourth goals against in the loss to the USA, where pucks snuck by his feet on shots from tight angles.

Sweden has had few problems generating goals and its first line just can’t be kept off the score sheet. In William Nylander, the team has what may be the tournament’s most dynamic offensive weapon, currently leading the tourney in scoring with four goals and 11 points in four games. A player looking to go top 10 in this summer’s NHL Draft, Nylander has used this tournament to show the hockey world exactly what type of skills he possesses, moving around the ice with the puck at will and making passes that give the impression that he has eyes in the back of his head. Also impressive has been his ability to play along the blueline on the power play and fire wrist shots right past unassuming goalies. In addition, both Adrian Kempe and Oskar Lindblom are scoring at over a point-per-game pace. A wonderful surprise has been defenseman Gustav Forsling ,who already has four goals and five points in the preliminary round. A current riser in the draft rankings is Axel Holmstrom, who has contributed one goal and eight points in the four games to date.

The Swedes lost a tight 3-1 game in the opening game despite skating back and forth with Canada in an evenly matched game. After that, they took control and have since defeated Russia (4-3 in penalty shots), Slovakia (6-2) and Germany (a whopping 9-3), growing more confident as the tournament has progressed. At this juncture, it’s hard to think that any team other than the USA or Canada could defeat them in this tournament.

Tip: As good as Finland has been, the Swedes have simply been faster, more active, and more dangerous. They’ve looked like different teams with different levels of confidence. Finland should be able to keep things close, but Kahkonen hasn’t always come up with the big save at the right moment, while William Nylander simply looks like a man on a mission. Despite the advantage, it’s hard to think that Finland could pull this one out. Sweden is simply firing on all cylinders.

Czech Republic vs Russia

The Czechs have quietly, but effectively, made their mark on this tournament. Despite having a relatively young team that will be able to return 12 players to next year’s tournament, the Czechs have marched through the preliminary round having only faced one team they couldn’t solve, namely the USA, against whom they lost 3-0. The other three contests have all been victories, including a 9-2 thumping of Denmark, a 4-3 penalty shot victory over host Finland, and a strong 4-2 win over Switzerland. This allotted the team a second place seeding, but the Czechs still have to travel to Imatra for the next round as host Finland is sticking in Lappeenranta regardless of rankings.

As could have been expected coming in, the four key contributors for the Czechs have been Jakub Vrana, David Pastrnak (both playing in Sweden), Vaclav Karabacek (QMJHL), and underager Pavel Zacha, who has continued to open eyes at this tournament. All four have five or more points and are being given tons of ice time. On the blueline, Jakub Zboril, Alex Rasner, and Filip Pyrochta have been on the ice at pretty much every important juncture of the tournament. Goaltender Vitek Vanecek has been given the full responsibility in goal and has responded well, even if a surprising amount of pucks have gone into and quickly fallen out of his glovehand. At the end of the day, the whole team has done the work necessary to place the Czechs where they are and they’re fully confident that this is the year that they can get to a medal game – and be successful once they are there.

As usual, the Russians have entered the tournament with medal aspirations. Unlike other tournaments, there are no stars of the ilk of Nail Yakupov, Mikhail Grigorenko, Valeri Nichushkin, or Pavel Buchnevich. Instead, this is a group with some talent that needs to show that it can become a team in time for the important games. It hasn’t necessarily done that to this point, even if the collection of talent has been enough to handedly make it to the playoffs. The tournament started off rocky for the team when it needed penalty shots to beat a pesky Slovak team before losing to Sweden, 4-3, on penalty shots, only having it made it that far on the grace of three third period goals on an official shot count of – you guessed  it – three. The team buckled down after that and beat Germany 5-2 (despite a 2-2 stand after 17 minutes) and then pulled out a big 3-2, penalty shot victory over Canada. With that, the Russians are entering the playoffs with eight of 12 possible points.

In goal, Alexander Trushkov and Maxim Tretiak (grandson to Vladislav Tretiak) have split the time and each put up decent, but not outstanding, numbers. Defensively, the team has been carried by Alexei Sleptsov (Moose Jaw), Damir Sharipzyanov (Owen Sound), and Nikita Lyamkin (Chicoutimi), who has contributed five assists to this point. All three have been active in all three zones and played key minutes when games are on the line.

Up front, the score-by-committee attitude hasn’t quite surfaced in a tangible manner, with the first line contributing most of the offense. Yevgeni Svechnikov leads the way with three goals and six points while his linemates Ivan Nikolishin (Everett) and Vladislav Kamenev each have five points. The majority of these points came for all three in the victory over Germany. Against all other opponents, it has been about battling for 60 minutes. With nine players having spent this season in North America, it has been very apparent that the players are ready to pay a physical price in each game in order to get points of any nature.

Tip: This will be one of the most interesting games in the playoffs. Either team can take it and each has particular arguments that would lend credence to tipping on one or the other. With the Russians clearly lacking that star element, one has to think that the few decision-makers for the Czech Republic will ultimately make the difference. Again, this Czech team looks like it is here to compete for a medal, and if any recent Russian club has been beatable at this stage, it’s this one.

What follows
For those who have been watching, it seems that Canada, Sweden, and the USA will be battling it out for gold. Hockey’s Future won’t argue with this analysis as these teams once again have shown the best depth, most consistent drive, and most dominant phases in the tournament. They will also provide the highest amount of draft picks in this summer’s NHL Draft, a trend that has solidified itself for a number of years now. If any one individual on these teams can make the difference, it has looked like it’ll be William Nylander, who has been using this tournament to boost his draft standings. Each of Russia, Finland, and the Czech Republic naturally has a realistic chance to upset a big team, but one of the three will most likely have to settle with going to war for bronze.

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