As the World Junior Championship winds down, four out of five Buffalo Sabres prospects, representing three different countries, are still competing for medals. The semifinal round features Team USA vs. Team Sweden and Team Canada vs. Team Czech Republic.
There were no upsets in the quarterfinals. The first seed, Team Sweden, defeated fourth-seed Team Slovakia 3-2 while second-seed Team USA got by third-seed Team Russia, 4-2. In the other playoff bracket, the first seed, Team Canada, spanked fourth-seed Team Switzerland 8-2 while second-seed Team Czech Republic squeaked by third-seed Team Finland 4-3 in a shootout.
Casey Mittelstadt / Team USA
(Sabres’ 2017 first-round pick)
Mittelstadt continues to lead the tournament scoring, with four goals and six assists in five games. The University of Minnesota standout has been the focal point of the team’s offense, using his soft hands, elusive skating, and playmaking ability to generate offense. He’s also playing with a sense of urgency to consistently create opportunities. The speedster is tied for seventh with a plus-seven among plus-minus leaders.
— USA Hockey (@usahockey) January 1, 2018
Mittelstadt has developed a pretty strong chemistry with teammate Brady Tkachuk. Tkachuk, an 18-year-old student at Boston University, is tied for fourth in scoring with seven points. He’s eligible for the 2018 NHL Entry Draft and is currently ranked in the top six by Hockeyprospect.com, ISS Hockey, Future Considerations and McKeen’s Hockey.
— USA Hockey (@usahockey) January 3, 2018
Alex Nylander / Team Sweden
(Sabres’ 2016 first-round pick)
Nylander has been in the tournament’s top 10 scoring leaders for most of the tournament. He’s tied for 16th with one goal and five assists in five games. His determined play, using his speed to push the pace, was key in winning loose-puck battles. He cranked one off the pipe with a highlight-reel spinning backhand shot against Russia in the last game of the play-in round.
At times, Nylander has shown blazing speed and puck skills. However, Nylander had an off game in Sweden’s 3-2 win over Slovakia in the quarterfinal Tuesday night. After the game, he was very quiet. Despite the win, he called out his own play that should’ve been better.
We have to step it up, my line and myself. I had a really bad game, which is unacceptable. I have to step it up a lot more next game. I’ve got to play a lot better. I wasn’t moving my feet and create more plays and use the stuff I’m good at, trying to get shots at the net and working hard. I’ve got to work harder. – Alex Nylander
It’ll be interesting to see if he can elevate his intensity over the next two contests as the Swedes pursue their first medal since 2014.
Nylander, a 19-year-old, missed all of the Sabres’ training camp and has only played in 15 games for the Rochester Amerks this year. After the tournament, it’s likely he’ll continue to play out the season in Rochester, working on his game and adding valuable playoff experience, all without burning the first year of his three-year entry-level contract.
Marcus Davidsson / Team Sweden
(Sabres’ 2017 second-round pick)
While playing mostly fourth-line minutes in a checking role, Davidsson has a goal and an assist. He’s a responsible player, using his speed well and consistently bringing a strong effort to neutralize opponents. It’s likely a similar role he’d play when he crosses the pond and plays in North America.
Vojtech Budik / Team Czech Republic
(Sabres’ 2017 fifth-round pick)
Budik is 10th in scoring among defensemen with four assists. He is a plus-3 in five games. He’s had a strong all-around tournament, blocking shots and killing penalties. He’s been a stabilizing presence on the Czech blue line, often using his long reach to help break up plays.
His awareness and composure came in handy when Finland’s offense piled on a whopping 54 shots in their first playoff game. He played a total of 26 minutes and nine seconds, helping the Czechs reach the semifinals for the first time since 2005.
Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen / Team Finland
(Sabres’ 2017 second-round pick)
Luukkonen, Finland’s primary goaltender, finished the tournament with a 2-3 record, 3.13 goals-against average and an .879 save percentage (116 saves on 132 shots). He was the only goalie in the tournament to play every minute of his team’s games. His composed style and athleticism weren’t enough as he left Buffalo medal-less.
He consistently used his big, 6-foot-4 frame to aggressively challenge shooters. He even flashed the leather on fellow Sabres prospect Mittelstadt in the game against Team USA, robbing him of a great opportunity.
Remaining Schedule and Medal Games
The U.S. will take on Sweden at 4:00 p.m. at KeyBank Center on Thursday in the first of two semifinal matchups. Game 2 features Canada against the Czech Republic at 8:00 p.m.
The bronze medal game will take place at 4:00 p.m. Friday, Jan. 5 at KeyBank Center, followed by the gold medal game at 8:00 p.m.
Jeff has been covering the NHL for over a decade for various sites. He’s been with The Hockey Writers as a lead Sabres writer three years, while also writing a satire column called “Off the Crossbar.”