International Ice Hockey Federation

Bring on the quarter-finals

Bring on the quarter-finals

It’s do-or-die time in Buffalo

Published 02.01.2018 00:28 GMT-5 | Author Lucas Aykroyd
Bring on the quarter-finals
USA's Joseph Cecconi and Russia's Kirill Belyayev battle during last year's semi-finals. Photo Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
Will all the favourites advance at the 2018 World Juniors? Or will there be an upset or two? Let’s take a closer look at Tuesday's quarter-final match-ups.

Czech Republic-Finland (KeyBank Center, 12:00)

The Finnish program is rising with World Junior gold medals in 2014 and 2016, while the Czechs haven’t won gold since 2000 and 2001. So from the outside, the first quarter-final might seem like a mismatch. But the Finns must beware of this Czech team’s ability to put the puck in the net.

“This is for us the best result in a few years,” said defenceman Libor Hajek. “Second in our group, that’s awesome.”

Led by forwards Martin Necas (2-4-6), Filip Zadina (3-1-4), and Filip Chytil (2-2-4), the Czechs have already scored five or more goals against Russia, Belarus, and Switzerland. Their Achilles’ heel has been preventing the other team from quickly replying. Neither Czech goalie has been a tower of strength, as the numbers for Jakub Skarek (4.39 GAA, 85.9 save percentage) and Josef Korenar (3.08 GAA, 90.1 save percentage) attest. Both have been pulled by coach Filip Pesan.

It is clearly in the Finns’ best interest to play a tight defensive game. They had that lesson reinforced in their group-closing 5-4 loss to the Americans. While the Czechs have a strong top pairing with Hajek and Vojtech Budik, the Finns have one of their deepest blueline corps ever with captain Juuso Valimaki, Miro Heiskanen, Olli Juolevi, and Henri Jokiharju. It hasn’t been the greatest tournament for netminder Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen (3.04 GAA, 88.2 save percentage), but the 18-year-old who backstopped Finland to 2016 U18 gold still gives his team the edge in goal.

Coach Jussi Ahokas’s boys have allowed the fourth-fewest goals in Buffalo (12) so far. Their forwards have yet to kick into top gear, but if they get some timely production from the likes of Eeli Tolvanen (1-4-5) and Kristian Vesalainen (1-2-3), they should be favoured to advance to the semi-finals.

Canada-Switzerland (KeyBank Center, 16:00)

Quite simply, this is a classic David and Goliath scenario. The numbers spell it out. Canada has outscored opponents 21-6, while Switzerland has been outscored 10-20.

Canada also brings a balanced attack: five Canadians have four or more points, led by Jordan Kyrou and Sam Steel, who have five apiece. Only Swiss assistant captain Marco Miranda has four points. Canadian coach Dominique Ducharme can roll four lines and the young Swiss could easily lose even if they, say, nullify Kyrou and Steel. And there is no Nico Hischier or Nino Nieddereiter this year who could single-handedly rejuvenate the Swiss attack.

Swiss coach Christian Wohlwend was straightforward: “We will try to fight, but what can I say? They have seven first-round draft choices and the rest in the second round. And one in the fourth round who has played more NHL games than anyone so far. What can I say? We have one in the fourth round, and the rest aren’t drafted.”

On a special teams note, the Swiss must stay out of the box. They’re pitting the tournament’s weakest penalty kill (20 percent) against Canada’s top-rated power play (53.3 percent).

“We have to score when we have the chance,” said Swiss captain Nando Eggenberger. “We have to focus on our defence and block shots, and shoot on their net.”

Historically, Switzerland has never beaten (or even tied) Canada in 21 World Junior attempts. The only good news for the Swiss is that in the Bible, David won.

Sweden-Slovakia (HarborCenter, 18:00)

Can the Slovaks take it up yet another level? If they can’t get any higher than they already did in their 3-2 upset versus the host Americans, then this will be unbeaten Sweden’s game.

Captain Lias Andersson has led the way on the ice with a tournament-high five goals. Swedish coach Tomas Monten can also rely on the likes of power play catalyst Elias Pettersson (4-2-6), third-time World Junior star Alexander Nylander (1-5-6), and smooth-skating 17-year-old defenceman Rasmus Dahlin (0-0-6), who is living up to his billing as the top prospect for the 2018 NHL Draft.

In order to stymie all that well-coordinated firepower, Slovak goalie Roman Durny will almost certainly have to make more than 40 saves. And the Slovaks need clutch scoring again from forwards Samuel Bucek (3-3-6) and Filip Krivosik (2-1-3). They’re the only team at these World Juniors that has yet to score a power play goal.

“I’m looking forward to it,” said Swedish defenceman Timothy Liljegren. “Slovakia is a good team. They beat the Americans, so we have to play a good hockey game.”

The Juniorkronorna are generally money in the quarter-finals. In fact, the Swedes haven’t lost one since Finland’s Tuukka Rask recorded a 53-save, 1-0 shutout in Vancouver in 2006. Expect that trend to continue.

Sweden has faced Slovakia in three recent quarter-finals, winning 6-0 in 2014 and 2016 and 8-3 in 2017. With that said, when the Slovaks captured bronze in 2015, it was Sweden they beat 4-2.

USA-Russia (KeyBank Center, 20:00)

The safest bet on this game is that, like the last four USA-Russia World Junior meetings, it will be decided by one goal. Top to bottom, the defending champion Americans have a superior roster with 10 NHL first-round picks. They should probably win. But as usual, Russian head coach Valeri Bragin has squeezed more out of his team than you’d expect on paper. Interestingly, Russia boasts the tournament’s top penalty kill this year (86.6 percent), not necessarily a statistic you’d expect.

Russia had won three straight playoff showdowns before the Americans prevailed in last year’s heart-stopping semi-final, 4-3. There, Troy Terry became this tournament’s answer to T.J. Oshie, who scored four times in six shootout attempts on Russia’s Sergei Bobrovski at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Terry, from the University of Denver, got three shootout goals on Russia’s Ilya Samsonov in Montreal.

The Russians will be out for revenge, and even if they’re outchanced or outshot, they’re uniquely opportunistic and deadly. While Klim Kostin (4-2-6), Artur Kayumov (3-2-5), and Andrei Svechnikov (0-0-5) have taken centre stage, relatively unheralded forwards like Alexei Polodyan (3-1-4) and Georgi Ivanov (1-3-4) are also contributing. From the back end, defenceman Vladislav Syomin (2-2-4) has keyed the attack.

“The key to getting success in the quarter-finals is to create enough chances,” said German Rubtsov.

Despite surrendering three goals on 11 disadvantages for a 72.7 percent penalty kill, the Americans look strong in all areas. Starting goalie Joseph Woll (2.34 GAA, 89.3 save percentage) should in theory be able to outduel Russia’s Vladislav Sukhachyov (2.65 GAA, 89.1 save percentage), who took over when Alexei Melnichuk faltered in the 5-4 opening loss to the Czechs. The defence brings size, mobility and skill – although perhaps not as much offence as expected outside of Adam Fox (1-3-4), who potted the late 5-4 winner against Finland.

As a group, the forwards, too, have more to give offensively. That said, current MVP favourite Casey Mittelstadt (4-5-9) has been both magical and clutch, showing real chemistry with linemate Brady Tkachuk (4-2-5), and you can’t say a bad word about captain Kieffer Bellows (4-0-0). If NHL-experienced Kailer Yamamoto (1-1-2) is going to break out, there’s no better time than against Russia.

Both sides have shown vulnerability, which makes it even more interesting. The Americans were upset by Slovakia, and the Russians had a sloppy opening loss to the Czechs.

If history provides any indication, this showdown will truly be a case of saving the best for last. Get ready to hold your breath as Bob Motzko tries to preserve his hopes of becoming the first head coach to win back-to-back World Junior gold medals since Canada’s Brent Sutter (2005, 2006).

 

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