At the World Juniors: Group A Up for Grabs?

Sweden is among the favourites to win gold at this year’s World Junior Hockey Championship, and an easy pick to top their group. The Swedes ran roughshod over Denmark in their first game of the tournament and will look to get another win against Switzerland on Wednesday.

Led by Alex Nylander and Carl Grundstrom, Sweden is in the driver’s seat to win their group and have good seeding heading into the knock-out phase. But as for the rest of group A, well at this point it’s anyone’s game.

Olli Juolevi, London Knights, NHL Combine, NHL Draft
Olli Juolevi  (Courtesy London Knights)

Finland is Disappointing

The last minute loss to the Czech Republic was crushing no doubt, but at least the Finns were in the game and had a chance to win it. The game against Denmark, however, that was a different story altogether.

Despite outshooting the Danes 36-10, Finland wasn’t able to get the game-tying marker, as Danish goalie Kasper Krog stood tall. Finland made it interesting, scoring twice in the third period, but overall looked sloppy and unfocused. They now are facing down an 0-2 hole in the group stage, with a game against their rival Sweden still to come.

‘We always should beat Denmark, or at least score more goals than two goals with those shots,’ said Finnish captain Olli Juolevi. ‘I don’t know. There are no excuses. It’s unbelievably tough,’ said Juolevi. ‘It’s not easy, especially when the other team is just putting the puck into the neutral zone and you have to try to run their wall. But we should have done that.’ [IIHF]

Denmark executed their game plan perfectly. They capitalised on their few scoring opportunities and then went into a defensive shell to frustrate the Finns, and it worked. If Finland loses to Sweden on Thursday, there’s a good chance they won’t be seeing the next round.

It’s a tough spot for the defending champs, but not an entirely surprising one. The team they brought to this year’s tournament is decidedly different than the one that won gold last year. It was going to be a challenge to repeat under any circumstances, but especially missing all the firepower that they are.

Few Holes in Switzerland’s Game

They may not have enough to factor into the medal conversation, but you can always count on Switzerland to give their opponents a fight. Last year, the Swiss fought off relegation to be a part of this year’s tournament, and they will be looking to surprise people.

It is hard to call the Swiss surprising because they have been known to give team’s fits over the years, particularly Canada. In pre-tournament action last week, Canada built up a 3-0 lead only to see it disappear and nearly lost in overtime. Switzerland can always be counted upon to have strong goaltending and a never-say-die attitude.

Nico Hischier (Katie Whitty Photography/Flickr)
Nico Hischier (Katie Whitty Photography/Flickr)

Switzerland’s first game was a victory, and somewhat of a shocker. On paper, it seemed as though the Swiss would be in tough, but the weary Czechs got themselves into penalty trouble as the game wore on. The first period was all Czech Republic, as they held a 9-3 edge in shots and controlled most of the play. But goalie Joren van Pottelberghe stood tall to keep the game tied.

The second period was all Switzerland, as they scored two unanswered goalies, stunning the Czech’s in the process. One of those goals was on the powerplay, thanks to four Czech penalities. Maybe they were tired, maybe the legs were getting heavy, but the discipline in this game left much to be desired. Probably the most egregious of penalties came in the third period after the Czech’s scored to put the game within one.

Boston Bruins prospect Jakub Zboril took an ill-advised cross-checking penalty and the Swiss scored on the powerplay. After that, however, Filip Chlapik lit the lamp twice to send the game into overtime. It looked like the Czech’s were cruising to their second win of the tournament, that is, until draft eligible youngster Nico Hischier broke in on the breakaway and sealed the deal for Switzerland. It was a huge victory for a team that didn’t win any games in last year’s tournament.

(Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports)
(Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports)

The Road Ahead

The standings in group A are extremely tight going into action Wednesday. The overtime game between Switzerland and the Czech Republic has made things even closer. If we can assume Sweden gets the top spot, then it’s really any one of Switzerland, Denmark and the Czech’s to get the number two position. The upcoming schedule looks like this:

Sweden vs. Switzerland on Wednesday. Denmark vs. the Czech Republic, and Finland vs. Sweden on Thursday. Switzerland vs. Denmark on Friday. Sweden vs. the Czech Republic, and Finland vs. Switzerland on Saturday.

You could argue that after the Sweden game, the Swiss have the best shot to win out. Finland just hasn’t looked good at all, and Denmark struggles to generate scoring chances. The close-knit standings bode well in terms of excitement in what has already been an unpredictable group stage. Perhaps the best stories are yet to come?