The dust has settled on the first week of World Junior Championship action, and we now know who will play whom in a single elimination tournament, as well as which two teams will move on to a three-game series for relegation. Wednesday may be the best day of WJC action, as there will five games on the docket. Let’s take a look at what’s on tap.
Relegation Series, Game 1: Kazakhstan vs. Denmark
(11:00 am PST)
As unbelievable as it seems, in the four games they’ve played, Denmark has yet to record a goal. It’s one of the more impressive, if disheartening accomplishments of the tournament, and it has landed them in the relegation series.
Kazakhstan, their opponent, is also winless, but they’ve put up more of a fight than most have expected and have only been shutout once. They are led in scoring by Sayan Daniyar, a promising youngster playing for Snezhnye Barsy in the MHL, Russia’s junior league. Both Daniyar and Snezhnye Barsy teammate Artur Gatiyatov have three points for Kazakhstan.
The Kazakhs will be looking to get pucks past Denmark’s goaltender, Mads Søgaard, who, despite a goals-against-average of about 6.00, has been one of the Danes’ better players. The 6-foot-7 netminder has looked better each game and put in a respectable performance against the Czech Republic in his last outing, stopping 27 of 30 shots.
It’s hard to pick a favorite in this three-game series. Denmark was thought to have the better team entering the WJC, but with their goalless drought extending through the first round, they’ll enter the relegation series ice cold. Kazakhstan, on the other hand, has shown some fight, despite being immense underdogs and ultimately losing each of the games they’ve played in so far. But could they have the upper hand on the Danes, who have stayed in the tournament five years running? Time will tell.
Favorite: Coin Flip
Players to Watch: Sayan Daniyar, D, Artur Gatiyatav F (KZK); Mads Søgaard, G (DEN)
Quarterfinal: Switzerland (7) vs. Sweden (2)
(1:00 pm PST)
Sweden has been one of the dominant teams of the tournament, losing only one point due to the miraculous comeback by the United States that forced their matchup to overtime. It would be easy to ignore the work being done by Sweden’s goaltender, Samuel Ersson. Selected by the Philadelphia Flyers in the fifth round of this past year’s draft, the 19-year-0ld has posted a .920 save percentage (SV%), having played in all four of Sweden’s games. He’s done his job, allowing the goal scorers to shine.
And none have shone brighter than Emil Bemström, a prospect in the Columbus Blue Jackets’ system, who leads team Sweden in goals and points. He’s not been alone, as six Swedish players have at least three points.
But don’t discount the Swiss too hastily. Though they have only one win so far, and it occurred against the hapless Danes, they’ve been a tough matchup for some high-powered opponents. They’re exactly the kind of team that can upset someone who takes them too lightly. It will be critical for Swedish head coach Tomas Monten to keep his team sharp.
If the Swiss can score a victory here, Philipp Kurashev will likely be the hero, as he has been all tournament. He’s got six points, five of them goals, and will look to continue to excite fans of both Switzerland and the Chicago Blackhawks, the team that drafted him in June.
There’s no question who the favorites are entering this game, but it may be closer than many suspect. Switzerland haven’t been easy to knock off so far, and they’ll look to score a massive upset against their fellow Europeans.
Players to Watch: Samuel Ersson, G, Emil Bemström, F (SWE); Philipp Kurashev (SUI)
Quarterfinal: Finland (5) vs. Canada (4)
(3:00 pm PST)
Canada seemed to be the team to beat in the tournament until they were, well, beaten by the Russian Federation on New Year’s Eve. In what would have to be labeled an upset despite the strength of the Russian team, Canada fell 2-1, knocking them down to an unexpected fourth place entering the quarterfinals. Canada’s head coach Tim Hunter explained what the loss meant as they entered the quarterfinals to TSN:
[The games are] going to get bigger and bigger. Tonight is like the rehearsal for it. The next game you don’t have a gimme where you lose a game and still move on.
Indeed, Canada is now entering the single-elimination portion of the tournament and is tasked with a tough matchup against Finland in the first round. The Finnish squad will also be entering the game cold as they fell 4-1 to the United States in the Americans’ best game of the tournament. The Finns will look for continued scoring support from their captain, Aarne Talvitie, a Penn State University talent who has two goals and two assists.
With due respect to Talvitie and Jesse Ylonen, also with four points, it’s no surprise that the real star for Finland has been their goaltender, Buffalo Sabres’ prospect Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen. He’s got a .934 SV% despite being one of only two goaltenders, along with Sweden’s Ersson, to start all four games.
But his opposite, Michael DiPietro, is no slouch either. He’s posted a .952 SV% in three games. Either he or Luukkonen could steal this matchup for his team and bring them through to the second round.
Canada will want its hottest scorer, Morgan Frost, to continue to perform as he leads the team and is second in the tournament with seven points. He was confident coming out of the loss to Russia, explaining to TSN reporters what to expect going forward:
It’s never a bad thing to face some adversity, and I think we’ll be a better team coming from it. It’s obviously ramped up now, it’s the quarterfinals, so it’s kind of win or go home, and I think there’ll be a lot of emotion, but I think you can expect our best game.
Canadian fans will certainly hope Frost is right as it will take their best game to beat Finland in the quarterfinal. They are the favorite, but it won’t be easy, especially with Luukkonen in the opposing crease.
Players to Watch: Morgan Frost, F, Michael DiPietro, G (CAN); Aarne Talvitie, F, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, G (FIN)
Quarterfinal: Czech Republic (6) vs. United States (3)
(5 pm PST)
The United States’ last performance was probably their best, beating Finland 4-1, and now they’ll face a Czech team that has struggled to get out of second gear all tournament. They beat Denmark on New Year’s Eve 4-0, but it was little more than a tune-up game, given Denmark’s struggles far.
On the bright side for the Czech Republic, their three star forwards began to click in Monday’s matchup, as each of Martin Necas, Filip Zadina and Martin Kaut recorded at least a point against the Danes. Kaut and Necas are now tied with David Kvasnicka for the team lead in points, though the latter has the most momentous goal of the WJC as it was his stick that scored the overtime winner in their first game against Switzerland.
Continuing the theme of dangerous goalies, the Czechs’ Lukáš Dostál, whom the Anaheim Ducks drafted in the third round this past June, has been stellar with a .957 SV% in three games. He will need to be on his game if he hopes to stop Ryan Poehling, one of the stories of the tournament so far.
Poehling came out of nowhere in the third period of the Americans’ game against Sweden, scoring four goals in just under 10:30 to carry his team back from a 4-0 deficit and into overtime. He collected another goal as his team beat Finland 4-1, and now has six goals to go along with two assists as the WJC leader in points.
The Americans will need Poehling and teammate Tyler Madden to continue to shine, particularly if Jack Hughes is not ready in time for the game. Hughes, the presumptive number one pick in the 2019 Entry Draft, has missed the last three games with an undisclosed injury and it is unknown whether he’ll return in time for the quarterfinal matchup.
The U.S. will enter the game as strong favorites, considering the wave of momentum they’re riding and because the Czech Republic has not looked polished enough to pose a serious threat. They could take the Americans down if their goaltender brings his “A” game, but they’ll need that and some help from their star forwards to get through to the semifinal.
Favorite: United States
Players to Watch: David Kvasnicka, D, Lukáš Dostál, G (CZE); Ryan Poehling, F, Tyler Madden, F (USA)
Quarterfinal: Slovakia (8) vs. Russia (1)
(7:30 pm PST)
Russia’s somewhat unexpected win against the Canadians on New Year’s Eve propelled them to a first place seed entering the quarterfinal, and they’ve earned it. Though they haven’t dominated anyone, they’ve played a steady game all the way through and should have no trouble dispatching Slovakia, whose only victory was an 11-2 drubbing of Kazakhstan.
Russia has received scoring from a number of its players, with 10 different skaters collecting multiple points. But its best forward has been Vitali Kravtsov, a New York Rangers’ prospect whose stock is perpetually on the rise. He has two goals and three assists for a tie for the team-lead in points. Defenseman Alexander Romanov, another Canadiens’ prospect, also has five points.
The brightest spot for the Slovakian squad has been Adam Liska, a 19-year-old who also has five points this week. He’ll need to be a huge factor if the Slovaks hope to shock the world against the Russians. But with a cornerstone victory over Canada under their belt, the Russians look difficult to stop.
Players to Watch: Vitali Kravtsov, F, Alexander Romanov, D (RUS); Adam Liska, F (SVK)
Wednesday will be an exciting day in the World Junior Championship as we’ll know the final four teams by day’s end. The favorites are Russia, Canada, the United States and Sweden, but few of those teams have an easy matchup on their plate and some upsets are possible.
Goaltending will be a major story, as Luukkonen will look to help Finland upset the Canadians, while Sweden’s Ersson will try and continue his strong play against Switzerland. A number of the final eight goaltenders are capable of stealing a game and several of them could be the primary factor if their team earns gold.
Meanwhile, the teams from Denmark and Kazakhstan still have a lot to play for as they’ll begin a three-game series to determine who gets to stay in Division I next year and who gets relegated. Entering the tournament, Denmark, who has stayed in Division I for five consecutive years, would have been the favorite, but their tournament-long goalless drought is worrisome, and the Kazakhs could be a tough test.
Jack Hughes’ status remains clouded as the number one prospect in the 2019 Entry Draft has missed three games with an undisclosed injury. The United States would love to have him back, but has received contributions from Poehling and Madden in his absence. The day’s action starts at 11:00 am PST with the relegation game. Then eight teams will fight for four spots in Friday’s semifinals. This is when the WJC gets most exciting, so be sure to tune in and catch all the action and check back with THW for all the coverage you need.
Stephen Ground is an author with The Hockey Writers and is co-host of the Two Guys No Cup Podcast. He enjoys studying the numbers and providing fresh looks at various stories.