Thursday will be the first day of the World Junior Championship in the new year and will be the fullest day of action in the tournament. The quarterfinal round will be played, and the relegation playoff will begin as well. That means all ten teams will play on Thursday, the only day of the tournament where that is true. Without further ado, let’s look at the matchups.
Relegation: Germany vs. Kazakhstan (4:00 AM)
The teams playing the relegation games this year are the two teams expected to be there entering the tournament, but both teams were difficult opponents during the group stage.
Dominik Bokk has led the German offense with five points, three of them goals. The Carolina Hurricanes prospect is a highly-skilled forward whom the team acquired by trading Justin Faulk. Moritz Seider, the Detroit Red Wings’ first-round draft pick, has been improving throughout the tournament. They are the two highest-profile players on the German squad and will need to show up to keep their nation in the WJC next season.
Kazakhstan is the only team not to win a game in the group stage, but they were still dangerous, scoring seven goals in the round. Maxim Musorov led the way with over half of those goals (4) and will need to come up big here as well. They surprised many by dominating Denmark in last year’s relegation round, but they have no one as skilled as either Bokk or Seider. Can they find the magic again?
These two teams will play two games in the relegation playoff. The winner of those games on aggregate (combining the two scores) will advance to next year’s tournament. The loser will move down a division to make room for Austria, who earned promotion in Alberta last month.
Players to Watch: Dominik Bokk F [CAR], Moritz Seider D [DET]; Maxim Musorov F (KAZ)
QF1: Switzerland vs. Russia (6:30 AM)
No team has been more unpredictable than Russia so far this tournament. They lost in their opening game to the host nation, then destroyed the Canadians 6-0, before falling to the Americans and destroying the Germans. If the pattern continues, they’ll be eliminated here against Switzerland, who are coming off a surprising 5-2 victory against Finland.
Of course, patterns mean nothing when the quarterfinal begins. Kirill Marchenko (Columbus Blue Jackets) has led the Russians on offense with two goals and four assists. Nikita Alexandrov has been strong as well, adding four more assists, one goal, and one of the most memorable hits of the tournament.
Russia has seen very different performances from goalies Amir Miftakhov, who has been strong, and top prospect Yaroslav Askarov, who has performed poorly. Will they choose the better prospect or the hotter hand going forward?
Switzerland’s Valentin Nussbaumer (Arizona Coyotes) has been outstanding, scoring two goals and five assists. Matthew Verboon and David Aebischer both have six points, and Gillian Kohler has five. Their offense has been surprisingly high-powered, which could make them a threat in the single-elimination tournament.
Normally, Russia would be the heavy favorite here, but this game seems too close to call with the way each team is trending.
Favorite: Coin Toss
Players to Watch: Kirill Marchenko F [CBJ], Nikita Alexandrov F [STL] (RUS); Valentin Nussbaumer F [ARI], Matthew Verboon F (SUI)
QF2: Canada vs. Slovakia (9:00 AM)
Other than their defeat at the hands of the Russians, Canada had a very good group stage, and as a result, they’ll play a seemingly easy matchup against Slovakia. But close to home in a neighboring country, the Slovaks won’t go quietly.
Alexis Lafrenière, who has missed two games after sustaining an injury against Russia, is expected to return against Slovakia. Barrett Hayton of the Coyotes and Dylan Cozens, a Buffalo Sabres prospect, have done a good job stepping up in his place with six points apiece. But no one will replace the talent and creativity of the presumptive first overall pick in 2020.
Slovakia will finally need to see something from goaltender Samuel Hlavaj, who has done a fantastic job in the QMJHL stopping Lafrenière and whoever else puts pucks on his net. But he’s been awful so far in the tournament, with a .868 save percentage (SV%) and a 4.50 goals-against average (GAA). Robert Dzugan has helped Slovakia with four goals, but they simply are not going to outscore the high-powered Canadians.
Players to Watch: Alexis Lafrenière F, Dylan Cozens F [BUF], Barrett Hayton F [ARI]; Samuel Hlavaj G (SVK)
QF3: United States vs. Finland (11:30 AM)
United States: Roster
Thanks to Finland’s unexpected loss to Switzerland, one of the two teams that dominated the last decade with a combined six gold medals is guaranteed to leave without any medal in 2020. The United States enters the game off a hard-fought, overtime win against the Czech Republic.
America’s Trevor Zegras (Los Angeles Kings) has been a playmaking wizard so far in the tournament and leads the WJC in points with nine assists. Shane Pinto, an Ottawa Senators prospect, isn’t far behind, with four goals and three assists. Finland’s Patrik Puistola (Hurricanes) and Kristian Tanus join him at the seven-point mark.
The key to this game may be which goaltender stands tallest. Spencer Knight, drafted 13th overall by the Florida Panthers, has recovered from a rough start against Canada, but still has an .895 SV% in the tournament as a whole. Justus Annunen, a Colorado Avalanche draftee, has been stronger, with a .917 SV% and 2.62 GAA, but his worst game was his last game against the Swiss.
This game is a matchup of two recent WJC powerhouses, and it is too close for anyone to call. It is a must-watch contest for anyone interested in the future of hockey.
Favorite: Coin Toss
Players to Watch: Trevor Zegras F [LAK], Spencer Knight G [FLA] (USA); Patirk Puistola F [CAR], Justus Annunen G [COL] (FIN)
QF4: Sweden vs. Czech Republic (2:00 PM)
Czech Republic: Roster
Sweden has looked pretty unstoppable so far in the group stage as the only team to play those four matchups without a loss. Goaltender Hugo Alnefelt (Tampa Bay Lightning) has looked strong, with a .914 SV% and a 1.95 GAA.
Sweden’s stout defensive corps, led by Rasmus Sandin (Toronto Maple Leafs) and Victor Soderstrom (Coyotes), has performed well at both ends of the ice, and they have combined for 15 points across the entire unit. They’ve certainly helped Samuel Fagemo (Kings), who leads the tournament with six goals. The Vancouver Canucks’ Nils Höglander has been fantastic as well.
The host nation has been impressive so far, beating Russia and dragging the United States to overtime. But they’ve been ravaged by major injuries to Jakub Lauko and Jan Jenik. Can Michal Teply (Chicago Blackhawks), who has five assists so far, find a magic touch? Or could a goaltender pitch a miracle shutout? It seems unlikely but never count the home team out.
Players to Watch: Rasmus Sandin D [TOR], Samuel Fagemo F [LAK] (SWE); Michal Teply F [CHI] (CZE)
Day 7 Summary
Every game is “must-win” from here on out at the WJC. The quarterfinals begin with four matchups, and while teams like Canada and Sweden seem to have easy draws, Switzerland will meet Russia and the United States will meet Finland in games that are too close to call. Over the next few days, 17, 18, and 19-year-old young men will become national heroes and underdogs may become medalists. If you haven’t tuned into the WJC yet, what are you waiting for?
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.