The penultimate day of the 2020 World Junior Championship is upon us, meaning three of the four teams remaining (not counting Germany and Kazakhstan in the relegation series) will be medalists. All that’s left to discover is who will place where on the podium (and who just misses out).
Let’s preview the three games that will take place on Saturday in the Czech Republic.
Relegation: Germany vs. Kazakhstan (5:00 AM)
Germany has a 1-0 series lead in the relegation showdown, and if they win on Saturday, they will secure their place in the 2021 tournament in Alberta and knock Kazakhstan down a division. J.J. Peterka led the Germans with a goal and an assist, while Tim Stützle added two assists of his own. Peterka is viewed as a potential early-round pick in the 2020 NHL Draft.
Kazakhstan needs to get a win to force a third and final game in the relegation series, but right now, there’s no clear indication where it might come from. Maxim Musorov has been their man throughout the tournament, scoring four goals. But it’s difficult to see how they can match pace with the deeper German squad.
Players to Watch: J.J. Peterka F, Moritz Seider D [DET] (GER); Maxim Musorov F (KAZ)
SF1: Sweden vs. Russia (9:00 AM)
Sweden has looked dominant in this tournament, especially in recent days. They easily dispatched the host nation 5-0 in their quarterfinal matchup, thanks in large part to a two-goal, three-point night from Vancouver Canucks prospect Nils Höglander. He now leads the entire tournament with 10 points, with five goals and five assists.
Russia managed to dispatch with Switzerland in their quarterfinal faceoff, ultimately winning 3-1. They had two points from Alexander Khovanov, a Minnesota Wild prospect playing with the Moncton Wildcats in the QMJHL, while Yaroslav Askarov, a top goaltending prospect in 2020, finally posted a strong performance, though he faced only 15 shots.
This is an interesting matchup on paper. Russia has historically been inconsistent in early rounds, becoming more dangerous the deeper in the tournament they go. Sweden, by contrast, has an incredible 52-game winning streak in the group stage, dating back to 2007. But they have medaled just seven times in that streak, winning gold only once. Could history repeat itself? If so, Sweden is facing another disappointment.
But history doesn’t always predict the future. Both teams are good, but Sweden has looked very strong in this tournament. Both semifinal games are anyone’s call, but here, we’ll give the nod to the Tre Kronor.
Players to Watch: Nils Höglander F [VAN] (SWE); Alexander Khovanov F [MIN], Yaroslav Askarov G (RUS)
SF2: Canada vs. Finland (1:00 PM)
Team Canada has looked outstanding in this tournament, and now, with the return of Alexis Lafrenière during the quarterfinals, they are back at full strength. But it was not the presumptive first-overall pick in 2020 that led the way against the Slovakians in a 6-1 victory. Instead, it was Arizona Coyotes’ fifth-overall pick Barrett Hayton who scored two goals and added an assist. Lafrenière did assist on the first goal, though, and scored one of his own later on.
Finland has made it this far, but they haven’t made it look easy. They collected back-to-back massive wins in the group stage before a shocking 5-2 loss to Switzerland. In Thursday’s quarterfinal, Colorado Avalanche draftee Justus Annunen was the star of the show, scoring the shutout on 30 shots. Joonas Oden’s lone third-period goal was the difference.
It’s hard to imagine Finland winning that type of game against the Canadians. They can certainly score, but they’ll need to find their touch again after their brush with Spencer Knight and the Americans. Canada is still the favorite here, as they’ve been the most consistent team in the tournament, apart from the head-scratching 6-0 loss to the Russians in the game where Lafrenière suffered his injury.
In an interesting footnote, this game may well be a showdown between the next two first-overall picks in the NHL. Many believe that Finland’s Aatu Räty will follow Lafrenière in that distinction. If he does, he will be the first Finn taken in that position.
Players to Watch: Alexis Lafrenière F, Barrett Hayton F [ARI]; Justus Annunen G [COL], Aatu Räty F (FIN)
Day 8 Summary
If momentum and skill are anything to judge by, we’ll see Sweden and Canada advance and Germany escape relegation on Saturday. Of course, the WJC thrives on unpredictability, and all the teams remaining in the semifinals are genuine threats. There’s only one way to know for sure what will happen: watch the games! And then check back here for your WJC Final preview.
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.