SWE-FIN, RUS-USA are tough to predict
Here is IIHF writer Lucas Aykroyd’s analysis of the Sweden-Finland and USA-Russia showdowns, along with his predictions.
Aykroyd picked the winners of 18 out of the 20 group games, plus all four quarter-finals. He has covered eight IIHF World Junior Championships, plus four Olympics and 16 IIHF World Championships. The predictions are the sole responsibility of the writer and do not reflect any official views of the IIHF.
SWEDEN-FINLAND (16.00, Hartwall Arena)
Start by throwing out the idea that the Swedes historically dominate Finland in international play. That may hold true in Olympic or World Championship competition, but not at the World Juniors. The Nordic rivalry is neck-and-neck. In 33 meetings dating back to 23 December, 1976, the Swedes have 16 wins, two ties, and 15 losses.
So there are no guarantees.
More to the point here, Swedish coach Rikard Gronborg and third-time World Junior forward Anton Karlsson will be seeking revenge for the 2014 final in Malmo. Their stacked squad fell 3-2 in overtime to the Finns, who won their first gold since 1998. Tournament scoring leader Teuvo Teravainen had three assists and goalie Juuse Saros shone with 35 saves.
This year, the Juniorkronorna have a beautiful chance to return the favour by destroying Finland’s dream of home-ice gold. Can they do it?
Led by the top line of Jesse Puljujarvi, Sebastian Aho, and Patrik Laine, coach Jukka Jalonen’s boys boast a tournament-high 29 goals. But the unbeaten Swedes aren’t far behind with 25, and they have a balanced attack with seven players with four or more points (compared to Finland’s five). Losing originally projected scoring leader William Nylander to injury in the opener versus Switzerland hasn’t fazed them.
Where the Swedes have a big edge is defensively. They’ve allowed just five goals to Finland’s 18. That is an astounding gap. The Finns have the tournament’s best power play (45.5 percent), but will it come through against a Swedish PK that’s surrendered just one goal?
Swedish goalie Linus Soderstrom leads the World Juniors with two shutouts, and his 1.27 GAA and 95.1 save percentage are second-best among starters. Meanwhile, Finland’s goaltending has been iffy. Even though Kaapo Kahkonen earned kudos for his 22 saves on 24 shots after relieving Veini Vehvilainen in the dramatic 6-5 quarter-final win over Canada, switching netminders this late in the tournament is rarely a harbinger of success.
Finland is coming off the euphoria of eliminating the defending champions, and will once again have a frenzied Hartwall Arena crowd on its side. But it’s hard to go to the emotional well two games in a row. The Finns will have to do that, while Sweden was clinical in its 6-0 dispatching of Slovakia. It’ll be a battle, but on paper, the blue-and-yellow squad is better-positioned to make the final.
Sweden 5, Finland 3: Hosts’ weak PK opens door for Swedes, top Finnish line scores but not enough
RUSSIA-USA (20.00, Hartwall Arena)
In the movie Miracle, which depicts the U.S.’s upset victory over the Soviet Union at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics, the late legendary coach Herb Brooks says: “I’m sick and tired of hearing about what a great hockey team the Soviets have.” If that line was updated for the 2016 World Juniors, it might read: “I’m sick and tired of losing to the Russians in the medal round.”
It is a risky affair to pick the Americans to beat Russia at this stage. It’s not just that they’ve lost two straight quarter-finals to the Russians, with Nikita Zadorov scoring twice with a two-man advantage in 2014 (5-3) and goalie Igor Shestyorkin making 39 saves in 2015 (3-2).
The U.S. has actually never defeated Russia in a medal round game – in six tries – since the IIHF instituted the playoff system for the World Juniors in 1996.
And yet, this could be the year that finally changes. Relying on skill and speed, the Americans have done just about everything right this tournament. They lost 1-0 to Sweden, but that was due to a jaw-dropping 46-save performance by goalie Linus Soderstrom.
Phenom Auston Matthews (7-4-11) is right there in the Best Forward (and possibly MVP) conversation with Jesse Puljujarvi and Patrik Laine. His hat trick in the 7-0 quarter-final romp over the Czechs was the definition of timely scoring. Top blueliner Zach Werenski has been a tower of strength at both ends of the ice for coach Ron Wilson.
Meanwhile, the Russians couldn’t bring themselves to take underdog Denmark seriously. They barely averted a quarter-final disaster with a 4-3 overtime win, thanks to Vladislav Kamenev’s two goals. This is not a good sign.
Granted, the Russians have had their fair share of narrow escapes and still medaled in recent years. But for instance, when they took their last gold under coach Valeri Bragin in Buffalo in 2011, it was Finland and Sweden that they needed extra time to beat in the quarter-finals and semi-finals respectively. Not Denmark.
Considering that Russia eked out 2-1 victories over the Czechs and Slovaks and played run-and-gun to beat Finland 6-4, it's arguable that their only truly solid effort here has been a 4-1 win over now-relegated Belarus.
Kamenev and Artur Lauta (five points) have stepped up of late. Yet this Russian team still can’t match the U.S.’s depth up front, with Sonny Milano (six points), Christian Dvorak (five points), and Nick Schmaltz providing great secondary scoring behind the Matthews line.
When it comes to defence, the Americans have also excelled. They’ve conceded just five goals to Russia’s 10, allowing one or fewer in each game since the opening 4-2 win over Canada. The U.S. has shown good discipline, taking just 14 minors and one major, which means that Russia’s third-ranked power play (33.3 percent) may not prove to be that big of a factor.
If there’s one hallmark of the post-Soviet Russian teams, it’s their unpredictability. You can never count them out in a situation like this, but it’s hard to tell what kind of team will show up today.
Including round-robin action, the Americans haven’t defeated Russia since 29 December, 2007, but their steady excellence in Helsinki has given them a great opportunity for revenge and a shot at their first gold since Ufa 2013.
U.S. 3, Russia 2: Americans survive bursts of Russian pressure, Matthews delivers the goods again
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