World Junior Championship: Semifinal Preview

In our preview of the World Junior Championship quarterfinals, we suggested that upsets were a real possibility. And the upsets came in droves on Wednesday, with arguably the two best teams of the tournament, Canada and Sweden, being eliminated.

Now, the semifinals are upon us, and it’s anyone’s tournament. There will be three games on Friday, with the two semifinal matchups preceded by the second game in the relegation series. Let’s take a look at what’s on the agenda.

Relegation Game 2: Kazakhstan vs. Denmark (9:00 am PST)

The good news for Denmark is that they finally scored their first goal of the tournament, ending a drought that lasted the entire first round.

The bad news is that the three goals they scored were not enough to hold off Kazakhstan, who beat them 4-3 to take a critical lead in the series. Sayan Daniyar and Artur Gatiyatov continued to be two of the better players for the Kazakhs, each collecting a goal.

Now, Denmark needs to win or get relegated. They were thought of as the better team entering the tournament, and have stayed in the primary division five years running, but they’re a game in the hole. Can the team that couldn’t score for four straight games now win two in a row?

They’ll need Jonas Røndbjerg to continue to perform. He was a high third round pick of the Vegas Golden Knights in their inaugural 2017 draft, and had a goal and an assist in Wednesday’s series opener.

At this point, the momentum seems to be against the Danish, but they have already proved they won’t go down without a fight, and if Kazakhstan survives relegation, they will have earned it.

Favorite: None

Players to Watch: Sayan Daniyar, F, Artur Gatiyatov, F (KAZ); Jonas Røndbjerg, F (DEN)

Semifinal: Russia vs. United States (1:00 pm PST)

The semifinals are an exciting pair of matchups, as the two teams that scored upsets on Wednesday face each other, while the two favorites who survived face off, too. Russia and the United States fall into the latter category, as the U.S. held off the Czech Republic before the Russians blew out Slovakia.

Now, the tournaments two best remaining teams will square off for one spot in the final. The Americans will lean heavily on Jack Hughes, who returned in the quarterfinals after missing three games with injury. The presumptive first overall pick in the 2019 NHL Draft collected an assist, and will look to contribute even more in his country’s final two games.

Team USA's Jack Hughes
Team USA’s Jack Hughes returned from a three game absence to record an assist in the Americans’ 3-1 victory over the Czech Republic (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Carlos Osorio)

Russian captain Klim Kostin showed up for his team in the quarterfinals as well, collecting two goals in the second period. Pavel Shen, the Boston Bruins’ seventh-round pick who scored the game winner in Russia’s upset over Canada, remained hot by collecting an assist.

It’s hard to pick a favorite in this matchup. Russia is technically the number one seed, but the U.S. will be a very tough challenger. One of them will go on to be a very strong gold medal contender, while the other will get a spot in the third place game.

Favorite: None

Players to Watch: Pavel Shen, F, Klim Kostin, F (RUS); Jack Hughes, F (USA)

Semifinal: Finland vs. Switzerland (5:00 pm PST)

Switzerland pulled off an all-time great upset by beating Sweden, a team that hadn’t lost in the quarterfinal since 2006, by a score of 2-0.

While Finland is a comparatively better team than Switzerland, their upset of Canada was no less significant, as it marks the first time in history that Canada would fail to medal in a WJC that they hosted.

Aleksi Heponiemi, a center in the Florida Panthers’ organization, was the hero, scoring on a bizarre ricochet from behind the net with 46.4 seconds left to get the game tied at 1. The Finnish team was buoyed by their special young net minder, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, whose 25 saves, including saving a Maxim Comtois penalty shot in overtime, kept Finland in the game long enough for Toni Utunen to score the game winner.

Team Canada Michael DiPietro Team Finland's Toni Utunen and Aarne Talvitie
Team Canada goalie Michael DiPietro lies on the ice after allowing the winning goal as Finland’s Toni Utunen and Aarne Talvitie celebrate. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck)

Luukkonen may meet his match in Switzerland’s Luca Hollenstein, whose 32 saves were obviously integral in shutting out and defeating Sweden. It was Luca’s all around, as Luca Wyss scored the second insurance goal that salted the game away for Switzerland and carried them into the semifinal.

There’s no question that Finland should have the better team and be the favorite here. But something has seemed special about the Swiss team from the very beginning. They were a tough matchup throughout the preliminary round, and scored a mega-upset against the Swedish squad. Could their momentum carry them through to the gold medal game?

Switzerland’s coach Christian Wohlwend certainly thinks so, even though his country has never made a WJC final. When asked by TSN if he thought his team could win gold, he responded:

Absolutely! We don’t talk so much now about the gold medal, but we definitely talk about winning against Finland now in the semifinal. It’s just logical that everybody believes now in ourself, and that’s good.

Switzerland will certainly be an underdog again when they take on the Finns, but that hasn’t stopped them before. Expect an exciting matchup in Friday’s final game.

Favorite: Finland

Players to Watch: Eeli Tolvanen, F, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, G (FIN); Luca Hollenstein, G (SUI)

Final Word

As the World Junior Championship winds down, the action is heating up. The semifinals are at hand, and one unexpected candidate is going to make the gold medal game. Finland and Switzerland will square off for a shot at that honor, while tournament favorites Russia and the United States will face each other for the other spot.

Meanwhile, Denmark and Kazakhstan will play to avoid relegation. Kazakhstan took a 1-0 series lead, and will ensure themselves a place in next year’s tournament with just one more win. But Denmark finally showed some fight in the matchup, collecting their first three goals of the entire championship.

Friday and Saturday are the final days of the tournament, so be sure to tune in while you can. And as always, check back with THW for all the analysis you need.