2019 World Juniors: Favourites Prevailing Thus Far

VANCOUVER — Through three days at the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship, there haven’t been any real surprises or upsets.

Those of us in pick ’em pools and bracket drafts are probably doing pretty good since the favourites have been prevailing thus far.

Canada and Russia both have 2-0 records in Group A, as do the United States and Sweden in Group B at Victoria. Finland and the Czech Republic each have a win and Switzerland has an overtime loss, while Slovakia, Denmark and Kazakhstan have yet to earn a point.

In other words, this under-20 tournament has been playing out as anticipated. I may have predicted Finland to beat Sweden in their opener, but betting against Sweden in the round robin would be foolish since their winning streak now stands at 46 games dating back to 2007.

The schedule ramps up from here, starting with two intriguing games tonight when Canada faces the Czech Republic and Sweden takes on the United States in a battle of unbeaten teams.

The Czechs have been underachieving in my opinion — especially offensively, with only three goals through two games — so they could be due to explode against Michael DiPietro. Don’t rule out an upset there, but don’t expect one either, since Canada will be eager to rebound from a mediocre effort in edging Switzerland and return to the form they flashed in lighting the lamp 14 times against Denmark to open the tournament.

If Jack Hughes returns to the lineup for the United States — after sitting out Tuesday’s 8-2 blowout over Kazakhstan with a day-to-day injury — I’d be tempted to take the Americans, but I wouldn’t put money on it. Erik Brannstrom and the Swedes are looking just as formidable and I have a feeling Isac Lundestrom could have a big game there.

After that, the focus will shift to New Year’s Eve when Canada clashes with Russia in a potential first-place showdown on Monday, while the United States meets Finland in a matchup featuring the projected first and second overall picks for the 2019 NHL draft — the aforementioned Hughes and Kaapo Kakko, two supremely talented forwards.

Jack Hughes Team USA U-18
(Dave Reginek/Getty Images)
Jack Hughes needs to get healthy or he might struggle to hold off Kaapo Kakko atop the draft rankings coming out of the World Juniors.

Then it’s on to the medal round, where the remaining eight teams will be playing for keeps in single-game eliminations beginning with Wednesday’s quarterfinals and continuing through to next Saturday’s championship game.

As for Friday’s lone Group A game, it had all the makings of a barnburner but honestly turned into a bit of a dud.

Russia 2, Czech Republic 1

Nikolai Kovalenko and Artyom Galimov scored shorthanded goals for Russia to trump a power-play marker from Jachym Kondelik, but the even-strength play left a lot to be desired considering the amount of high-end skill on display — including seven first-round picks between the two teams.

For whatever reasons, those studs didn’t deliver on this night. In fact, only one of the seven reached the scoresheet with Russian defenceman Alexander Alexeyev recording a secondary assist on Kovalenko’s 2-0 goal in the second period that stood up as the winner despite Kondelik’s quick response on the same man advantage.

Russia’s stacked top line — comprised of captain Klim Kostin (31st overall in 2017, St. Louis), Vitali Kravtsov (ninth overall in 2018, New York Rangers) and Grigori Denisenko (15th overall in 2018, Florida) — was invisible through 40 minutes before coming on strong in the third period only to be denied repeatedly by Czech goaltender Lukas Dostal, who was named his country’s player of the game in defeat.

The Czech’s big three — Martin Necas (12th overall in 2017, Carolina) and Martin Kaut (16th overall in 2018, Colorado) on their top line, along with Filip Zadina (sixth overall in 2018, Detroit) — were more noticeable in the early stages and Necas came close to netting the equalizer with a buzzer-beating rush as his shot slipped through the armour of Russian ’keeper Pyotr Kochetkov but sailed wide as the horn sounded.

Zadina scored seven goals in as many games at last year’s World Juniors in Buffalo — tying for second among tournament leaders — but he hasn’t tallied a single point through two games in Vancouver.

Zadina did have a handful of quality chances and hit a crossbar during Wednesday’s 2-1 overtime win against Switzerland, but he didn’t generate much against the Russians and made his biggest impact by playing goalie to stop Kovalenko’s empty-net attempt once Dostal was pulled for an extra attacker. It was a sweet save, but Zadina is supposed to be scoring and you have to wonder if or when coach Vaclav Varada will reunite Zadina with Necas to spark some more offence. They were the dynamic duo last year, though Kaut had a goal and an assist in this year’s opener as Necas’ main wingman.

Filip Zadina
(Kevin Hoffman/Getty Images)
Filip Zadina is bound to break out at some point in this tournament and the Czechs would love to see it happen today against host Canada.

Necas, who is captaining the Czechs, has been limited to just one helper so far and showed his frustration by smashing his stick after Friday’s last-second shot failed to find the back of the net.

Kovalenko, the son of former NHLer Andrei Kovalenko, was named Russia’s player of the game, while 17-year-old forward Vasili Podkolzin — another projected top-five pick for 2019 — seemed to earn the trust of coach Valeri Bragin as Friday’s contest progressed.

Bragin and the Russian brass rarely bring underage draft-eligible prospects to this tournament, yet Podkolzin was still getting a regular shift into the final five minutes with the team clinging to a one-goal lead. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think the same could be said for Andrei Svechnikov at last year’s World Juniors and we all know how good he’s already looking in the NHL.

Podkolzin didn’t do anything overly special to stand out, but he made a lot of smart plays and didn’t panic with the puck, which should bode well for his usage going forward.

Besides, it wasn’t a highlight-filled game by any stretch of the imagination. Two of the goals were scored less than a minute apart, all three came in special-teams situations, and it was otherwise quite tight-checking without many odd-man rushes or end-to-end exchanges to speak of.

Kostin and Kravtsov created a couple ‘wow’ moments when they turned it up in the final frame — more so than Denisenko — but they will need to be better from the outset in that marquee matchup against Canada on Monday.

The fans didn’t necessarily get their money’s worth in terms of excitement Friday, but the attendance continues to be a bright spot in Vancouver with a crowd of 14,523 at Rogers Arena for a non-Canada game. That’s impressive and the building will absolutely be packed and ready to party again tonight.