Who’ll win quarter-finals?
Who’ll win quarter-finals?
It’s do-or-die time in Helsinki
Heading into the quarter-finals, Sweden, Russia, the United States, Finland, and Canada are all still in the mix, although certain teams’ stocks have clearly risen or fallen. Arguably, the Czechs have also distinguished themselves enough to earn consideration.
And remember, no one picked the Slovaks to win bronze last year or the Danes to survive twice in the elite division without playing any relegation round games. So nothing can be taken for granted at the Hartwall Arena and Helsinki Ice Hall on 2 January.
Here is IIHF writer Lucas Aykroyd’s analysis of each quarter-final, along with his predictions.
Aykroyd picked the winners of 18 out of the 20 group games, and got the correct margin of victory in six cases. He has covered eight IIHF World Junior Championships, plus four Olympics and 16 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championships. The predictions are the sole responsibility of the writer and do not reflect any official views of the IIHF.
RUSSIA-DENMARK (14:00, Hartwall Arena)
This is just the second meeting between these two nations in World Junior history. While the Russians traditionally crank up their game for the playoffs, they are also guilty at times of taking lower-echelon teams too lightly. Last year in Toronto, they needed Sergei Tolchinski’s shootout winner to top Denmark 3-2.
Of the Danes, Russian forward Radel Fazleyev said: “It’s a pretty good team. We played them before the tournament and I think we beat them 5-0.”
Denmark has nothing to lose here. To keep this one close, it needs to play 5-on-5 as much as possible. The Russians have a huge edge in special teams. They have the tournament’s second-best power play at 35.7 percent, while the Danes have yet to score with the man advantage. Russia also boasts the top-ranked penalty kill (93.3 percent).
In the end, even though the Danes should come out with a gutsy effort, the Russians bring too much skill and scoring balance to let this one slip away. Eight Russians have three or more points so far, including forward Alexander Polunin’s team-high three goals and defenceman Ivan Provorov’s four assists. Danish goalie Thomas Lillie will be in for a busy afternoon.
Russia 5, Denmark 1: Russians break 1-1 tie early in second period, capitalize twice on PP
SWEDEN-SLOVAKIA (16:00, Helsinki Ice Hall)
The Swedes have revenge on their minds. They doubled their disappointment last year in Montreal by losing 4-1 to Russia in the semi-finals (hey, it happens) and then falling 4-2 to Slovakia in the bronze medal game (which should not have happened).
Coach Rikard Gronborg’s crew has established itself as the best all-around team so far in Helsinki. With a perfect 4-0 record, a 19-5 goal difference, and the top goaltender in Linus Soderstrom (94.2 save percentage, 1.70 GAA), the Juniorkronorna could be set for their first gold medal run since 2012.
They’ve accomplished all this without William Nylander, who most assumed would be their offensive catalyst. He’s been sidelined since taking an illegal check to the head in an 8-3 win over the Swiss. He did not practise with the team on New Year’s Day. Defenceman Jakob Larsson and forward Joel Eriksson Ek, who missed the 5-2 win over Canada with the flu, should be available.
Sweden’s only stumble was getting outplayed and outshot 46-23 in their 1-0 win over the United States. While it’s nice to know that their goaltending can bail them out in a situation like that, they won’t want to risk going down that road again.
Slovak captain Christian Jaros summed up the challenge awaiting his team: “We have to skate better, shoot better, do everything better.” But how much more do the Slovaks have to give?
Apart from getting blown out 8-3 by Finland, coach Ernest Bokros’s team has competed hard in every game. But they haven’t managed to upset any top teams. Goalie Adam Huska has done his job competently, but his numbers don’t stack up against Denis Godla’s last year.
And with only forward Matus Sukel on a point-per-game pace, they’ll struggle to complete offensively with a Swedish team whose hot guns include Alexander Nylander (8 points), Dmytro Timashov (5 points), and Adrian Kempe (4 points). Sweden will want to leave no doubt.
Sweden 6, Slovakia 2: Younger Nylander continues to shine as Swedes build early lead and pull away
FINLAND-CANADA (18:00, Hartwall Arena)
This is the most intriguing quarter-final, not just because it pits the host team against the defending champions. These are atypical Finnish and Canadian teams. Traditionally, the Finns build off top-flight goaltending and strong team defence, while Canada excels in every aspect.
This year, the Finns are taking more of a “Russian approach.” Imagine the top line of Jesse Puljujarvi, (12 points), Sebastian Aho (9 points), and Patrik Laine (8 points) as a U20 answer to, say, Alexander Ovechkin, Yevgeni Malkin, and Ilya Kovalchuk. Big, strong, fast, and skilled, they’re 1-2-3 in tournament scoring. Nobody has been able to stop them. The Finns have the tournament’s top power play (8-for-16).
Yet hang on. It’s not all roses for coach Jukka Jalonen. The penalty-killing has been mediocre (5 goals allowed on 15 disadvantages), and the goaltending is a question mark. Starter Veini Vehvilainen, who dazzled with 60 saves in a 2-1 gold medal game loss to the U.S. at the 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship, hasn’t been as stellar in Helsinki. He’s looked vulnerable on high shots, and his 85.7 save percentage is 12th-best in the tournament.
The Canadians are eager for redemption after their weakest round-robin showing since 1998, when they crashed into eighth place.
“We’re playing Finland in the big rink,” said defenceman Joe Hicketts. “It’s going to be a big crowd. There’s going to be a lot of energy and emotion. It’s going to be about containing our emotion and putting it to good use.”
While forwards Dylan Strome and Mitch Marner have had their moments offensively, Canada ranks fifth-best in goals (13). Travis Konecny has been an effective physical sparkplug, but NHL-experienced Jake Virtanen remains pointless and has tried to do too much himself.
Defenceman Joe Hicketts has been excellent but needs more support from his fellow blueliners. Goalie Mackenzie Blackwood is still finding his game after the 3-2 shootout win over Switzerland and the 5-2 loss to Sweden. At 54.5 percent, coach Dave Lowry’s team’s penalty-killing is second-worst overall. Any lack of discipline could be a huge Achilles’ heel versus Finland.
“I don’t think our game’s where we’d like to be at,” said Hicketts. “That being said, we have the capability, the skill and the personnel in that dressing room to turn it on, I think.”
Finland 4, Canada 3: Canadians battle to the end, but Puljujarvi line delivers again
USA-CZECH REPUBLIC (20:00, Helsinki Ice Hall)
With two Olympics and more than 1,400 NHL games behind the bench, American coach Ron Wilson is the consummate voice of experience. So when he reflects on his team’s record of three wins and one loss so far, you can take his satisfaction at face value: “We haven’t hit any bumps in the road other than that Sweden game, and we played very well. We should have won that game, but we didn’t. We didn’t sulk about it. We got right back on the horse and got going again.”
Of course, to maintain that high level of satisfaction, the U.S. needs to beat the Czech Republic. Since winning gold in Ufa 2013, the Americans have lost two straight quarter-finals. That’s unacceptable for a nation with this much depth and talent.
The good news is that unlike the last two years, they won’t be tangling with the shark-like Russians. In the Czechs, they face an opponent that has scored 12 goals to their 18, and allowed 10 goals to their five.
Starting U.S. goalie Alex Nedeljkovic boasts a sparkling 93.1 save percentage and 1.62 GAA. Captain Zach Werenski and fellow D-man Brandon Carlo share the overall plus-minus lead (+6). Forward Auston Matthews, expected to go first overall in the next NHL Draft, has lived up to expectations with eight points in four games, and he’s made his linemates Matthew Tkachuk and Colin White better too.
Even in a losing cause, the Czechs made trouble for both Russia (2-1) and Finland (5-4). Don’t expect them to just roll over for the Americans. But their feeble penalty-killing (63.6 percent) and power play (11 percent) won’t allow them to get into a special teams showdown. A big showing from forwards David Pastrnak (four points in three games) or Michael Spacek (five points in four games) would be a major asset.
An upset isn’t totally out of the question, but if all unfolds according to form, the Americans should be off to the semi-finals.
USA 4, Czech Republic 2: Two points for Matthews, late empty-netter seals the deal
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