Momentum is starting to build at the 2020 World Junior Championship in the Czech Republic. Every team has played at least one game so far, and Saturday’s matchups will begin to give us a clear picture of the real contenders and the pretenders in this year’s tournament. Let’s take a look at the slate of games.
Finland vs. Slovakia (9:00 AM)
Slovakia did what they had to do on Friday, beating Kazakhstan 3-1 and likely avoiding the threat of relegation for another year. But to gain any momentum in the tournament through the years, they will need to show they can beat the top-level competition. There’s no bigger adversary in that department than Finland, who ties the United States with three gold medals in the last decade of play.
Close to home, Slovakia showed some early jitters in a game they were expected to win against Kazakhstan. It wasn’t until the final three minutes of the third period that Daniel Vladimir Tkac sealed the victory with a heroic goal. Will he continue to lead the Slovakian offense with some timely scoring against Finland?
The Finns suffered a difficult overtime loss to their rival Sweden, spurned in part by Nils Höglander’s now-viral “Michigan” goal from behind the net. But even in defeat, there were positives: goaltender Justus Annunen looked strong, and Carolina Hurricanes prospect Patrik Puistola contributed two points.
With their firepower and history of success, Finland should be a heavy favorite. But don’t discount the home cooking factor for Slovakia. Werk Arena in Třinec, where the game will be played, is under half an hour from the Slovakian border.
Players to Watch: Daniel Vladimir Tkac, F (SVK); Patrik Puistola, F [CAR] (FIN)
Czech Republic vs. Germany (9:00 AM)
Czech Republic: Roster
Germany proved themself to be much more than an afterthought with a strong performance against the United States on Friday. They took the lead on Dominik Bokk’s goal midway through the second period but were unable to hold of Oliver Wahlstrom and the potent American attack. Though they ultimately fell 6-3, don’t overlook what they accomplished in the first half of the game.
The Czech Republic got their tournament off on the right foot when they scored a big upset on Day 1 against Russia. A trio of assists from Chicago Blackhawks prospect Michal Teply helped them to a 4-3 victory. The first half was torrid, with all seven goals scored in the first two periods. But Anaheim Ducks prospect Lukas Dostal shut the door in the final frame, stopping all 10 shots. He was 33-of-36 overall in the game.
Strong goaltending can carry a team far in this kind of tournament, and Dostal is among the best in the tournament. The hosts should be the favorites in this game, and a win here would all but secure their place in the final tournament.
Favorite: Czech Republic
Players to Watch: Dominik Bokk, F [CAR] (GER); Michal Teply, F [CHI], Lukas Dostal, G [ANA] (CZE)
Switzerland vs. Sweden (1:00 PM)
Now to a game that features two teams coming off a win on Thursday and a day’s rest on Friday. In fact, this game is a rematch of the 2019 quarterfinal upset that saw Swiss goaltender Luca Hollenstein orchestrate a 41-save shutout to shock the heavily-favored Swedish team. The Swedes will be out for vengeance on Saturday, coming off an overtime win against the rival Finns.
Speaking of that game, we already mentioned the gorgeous goal by Höglander, one of the top Vancouver Canucks prospects at the WJC. But, honestly, it’s never too often to take a look at it, so here it is again:
Höglander added the primary assist on the tying goal that sent the game to overtime. The 40th overall pick in 2019 figures to be a significant part of his team’s offense going forward in the tournament.
If Switzerland wants to match Sweden’s firepower, they’ll be looking to Matthew Verboon, who netted two goals for them in their game against Kazakhstan on Thursday. Hollenstein will also need to bounce back: he allowed three goals on just 19 Kazakh shots in Game 1. Can he find his former magic against the team he took down single-handedly last year?
Players to Watch: Nils Höglander, F [VAN] (SWE); Matthew Verboon, F, Luca Hollenstein, G (SUI)
Russia vs. Canada (1:00 PM)
Finally, a true marquee matchup to round out Saturday’s action. Russia is looking to bounce back from a tough loss to the host nation in Thursday’s action, while Canada will be hoping to ride the wave of momentum stemming from a come-from-behind victory over their archrival, the United States.
Potential 2020 first-overall pick Alexis Lafrenière put on a show in the game against the Americans. He collected three assists and scored the winning goal as well. After a somewhat disappointing 2019 tournament, he will look to continue to be a major factor against the Russians.
The Russian performance against the Czech Republic can hardly be described as anything but a disappointment, but Russia has historically been slow starters in the tournament. Canucks prospect Vasili Podkolzin notched one goal, while Philadelphia Flyers signee Yegor Zamula netted the other two. Unfortunately, goaltender Yaroslav Askarov, the top goaltending prospect in 2020, was not as sharp, allowing four goals on 22 shots.
Askarov will need to rebound to stymie the high-powered Canadian offense. Riding the wave of momentum, Canada will be a slim favorite. But this game could truly go either way.
Players to Watch: Alexis Lafrenière, F (CAN); Vasili Podkolzin, F [VAN], Yaroslav Askarov, G (RUS)
Day 3 Summary
While there are slight favorites in most of Day 3’s matchups, no game should be a blowout. Expect high-skill performances from players like Lafrenière and Höglander, while goalies like Hollenstein and Askarov will hope to keep their teams in games they’re expected to lose.
After Saturday, every team will have played two games and the standings will be clearer. We will know who should be safe, and who might risk relegation. The action is fast and furious in the WJC: blink and you’ll miss it.
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.