After five days of action in the 2022 World Junior Championship, two teams have emerged as clear frontrunners for gold: archrivals Canada and the United States. While it’s no surprise that either is at the top of the heap, their dominant performances throughout the qualifying round have been a sight to behold. On Day 6, Canada gets a break while the U.S. plays its final game of the first round. The matchup against Sweden, a perennial challenge in the qualifying round, should be its toughest test yet. But first, let’s look at the other two games today’s action holds.
Finland vs. Slovakia (2:00 PM)
We shouldn’t overlook what Finland has done so far in this tournament. Arguably the most successful WJC team of the last decade, they are undefeated through two games, but their narrow 4-3 shootout escape against Czechia does make one question whether they can outgun either of the “big dogs.” In this matchup against Slovakia, they’ll be looking for more scoring from Joakim Kemell and Aatu Räty, who both have two goals and three assists. The Nashville Predators took Kemell with the 17th pick in this year’s draft. The high skilled forward is a versatile scoring threat and could have a bright future in the NHL.
Räty was once viewed as the possible #1 overall pick in the 2021 Draft before plummeting all the way to the 52nd pick after a series of confusing performances. But a resurgent season in 2022 now has Islanders fans hoping they stole a high-first-round talent late in the second round. And Räty will certainly be happy to continue proving his doubters wrong.
Slovakia has had a solid tournament so far without its top young players (Juraj Slfakovsý and Šimon Nemec were both held out of the competition by their new parent clubs). A shootout win against Latvia all but assures that they’ll avoid the embarrassment of the relegation round and at least have a shot in a quarterfinal matchup. But they’ll still enter this contest as heavy underdogs. Matej Kaslik, a 20-year-old undrafted forward, remains their top scorer with three goals. But if they want to beat Finland, they’ll need more from goalkeeper Simon Latkoczy, who has had a rough tournament so far.
Players to Watch: Joakim Kemell, F [NSH], Aatu Räty, F [NYI] (FIN); Matej Kaslik, F, Simon Latkoczy, G (SVK)
Czechia vs. Latvia (6:00 PM)
All credit to Latvia. The nation of less than two million — who was a late replacement for Russia and Belarus — has managed to score in every game and even steal an overtime point from Slovakia. Many last-place teams have suffered far worse fates at the WJC, even when they had ample time to prepare for the tournament. Still, there’s no denying Latvia will be significant underdogs against Czechia. Bruno Bruveris, a 20-year-old who played last season with the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders in the USHL, will need to be stellar in net to give them a shot. Latvia has allowed the second-most shots on goal of any team in the tournament, with 125.
Czechia will be hoping that Jan Myšák, the Montreal Canadiens prospect who leads their nation in scoring, can take advantage of the holes in the Latvian defense and add to his three goals so far. Jan Bednar, a 2020 fourth-round pick of the Detroit Red Wings, hasn’t been great in net so far, with a .883 save percentage (SV%). But Latvia might give him an opportunity to get himself straight before the quarterfinal matchup. In three games so far, Czechia has headed in distinctly the wrong direction: they eeked out a victory over Slovakia, 5-4, then took a narrow 4-3 shootout defeat to Finland, then got walloped by Canada 5-1. They will be hoping that Latvia is the “get right” game before advancing to what will likely be a tough quarterfinal matchup. They’ll enter this game as heavy favorites.
Players to Watch: Bruno Bruveris, G (LAT); Jan Myšák, F [MTL], Jan Bednar, G [DET] (CZE)
United States vs. Sweden (10:00 PM)
United States: Roster
Now we move onto the marquee matchup, and it is likely to live up to its name. Qualifying round showdowns don’t get much better than USA vs. Sweden. And the Americans will enter the game with all the momentum in the world, having scored 19 goals in the tournament while allowing just two. Kaidan Mbereko, a 19-year-old goaltender who has not yet been drafted to the NHL, hasn’t had to do too much work in net, but he’s been stellar, allowing just one goal in two games. Sweden will be his toughest test yet.
The star of the American show has been its depth. Not loaded with the high-end star power that Canada has this year, the U.S. has relied on scoring from all over the ice, and they’ve received it. Carter Mazur (Red Wings) and Thomas Bordeleau (San Jose Sharks) have led the way with six points apiece, but Riley Duran (Boston Bruins) and Luke Hughes (New Jersey Devils) are close behind with five. They also have three players with four points. Hughes remains the must-watch player wearing red, white, and blue. The 18-year-old (who turns 19 next month) is considered one of the best NHL-drafted prospects in the world and could well crack the Devils’ roster this season. He is hoping to quarterback his nation to another gold medal before that, though.
As hot as the U.S. has been, Sweden will clearly be its toughest test yet. Their jaw-dropping 54-game winning streak may have finally been snapped, but they always come prepared and loaded with talent. Presumably, Jesper Wallstedt, widely considered the best goaltending prospect in the NHL, will get the start in this must-see matchup. He has had one start thus far and looked fine, allowing two goals on 23 shots.
Sweden has used a score-by-committee approach as well, but their offense has not looked as potent as the Americans. They have three players (Emil Andrae, D, Isak Rosen, F, Fabian Lysell, F) with three goals apiece but will need someone to rise up and take charge to overcome the U.S. unless Wallstedt transforms into a brick wall. Keep a close eye on Simon Edvinsson. The tall defender scored his first goal of the tournament against the Austrians on a heavy slap shot from behind the circle. Some criticized the Red Wings for taking him sixth in 2021, but a standout performance here could help shut their mouths.
Typically, this would be a tough game to declare a favorite in. Sweden is normally quite a challenge in the opening round, and the United States doesn’t always play its best hockey right away. But with the way they’ve performed so far, there’s no question that the U.S. enters as the team to beat. But the Swedes are never to be counted out, especially with Wallstedt in net. This will be a can’t-miss game for hockey fans.
The United States/Sweden Showdown is Must-See
To reiterate, the final game of today’s action might well be the best of the qualifying round. Two heavyweights are squaring off in Edmonton at 10:00 PM ET. Hockey fans should stay up to watch this one. But this late in the qualifying round, every game has major implications for quarterfinal placement. So be sure to catch all the WJC action today and appreciate the rare gift of hockey in August.
|Team Canada||Players to Watch||Roster|
|Team USA||Players to Watch||Roster|
|Team Austria||Players to Watch||Roster|
|Team Czechia||Players to Watch||Roster|
|Team Finland||Players to Watch||Roster|
|Team Germany||Players to Watch||Roster|
|Team Sweden||Players to Watch||Roster|
|Team Switzerland||Players to Watch||Roster|
All Your THW 2022 World Junior Championship Coverage
Stephen Ground is a veteran of over three years at THW, focusing on the St. Louis Blues, NHL goaltending, and the annual World Junior Championship. He is the co-host of the Two Guys One Cup Podcast, a hockey podcast focused on the Blues.