By Jamie Neugebauer
WJHC semifinal studs and duds
Just like in the quarters, the semifinals involved an American blowout and a Russian thriller.
In the first matchup, the U.S.A. dominated Canada from the puck drop and advanced to the gold-medal game with a 5-1 victory.
In the second semifinal, Canadiens draft pick Sebastian Collberg was the only player to score in the shootout as the Swedes edged the Russians 3-2.
Slovakia ensured their participation in next year’s tournament with a tight 5-3 relegation-round win over Latvia.
Unlike last year when Canada was down 5-1 in the third period of the semifinals, there was no attempt a comeback this time around, and a big reason for that was the play of American goaltender John Gibson. The Ducks’ prospect has been sensational all tournament and when Canada finally got some pressure in the second and third periods, he shut the door time and time again; especially on point-blank chances from NHL-ready snipers Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Ryan Strome. A Kitchener Ranger in his day job, Gibson had Canadian players wondering if beating him was possible at all Thursday.
While John Gaudreau will get a lot of press (and rightly so) for the American’s offensive outbreak, line mates J.T. Miller and Jimmy Vesey were both spectacular for the U.S.A. as well. The unit combined for three goals and seven points in the game and was extremely dangerous every time they were on the ice. It was Vesey’s beautiful second period goal that ultimately chased Subban out of the net after he tore down the right wing and fired a perfect shot just inside the far post.
For the second game in a row it was goaltender Andrei Vasilevski that gave Russia a chance to move on. The Tampa Bay first-rounder was spectacular in the first period as the Swedes out-shot the hosts 12-2, and he kept his team in the game long enough to force overtime and an eventual shootout. Although Russia lost in the end, Vasilevski was exactly as advertised — a battler with tremendous athleticism and a possessor of great composure under big pressure.
Swedish captain Filip Forsberg has been consistent throughout the tournament, but saved his best for today. The power forward gave Russia’s defenders headaches from the drop of the puck, effectively creating offence off the cycle and scoring Sweden’s second goal. A Washington first-rounder, his game looks to translate well to the smaller ice of the NHL where his size and quick hands are of a potentially dominating calibre.
Picking on one Canadian player would be as futile after the effort they brought Thursday. As a team they were simply not ready, mentally or physically, for the much hungrier Americans, and they cannot check off a single item that they hoped to accomplish in their game plan. Canada turned the puck over at the blue lines, was not sharp with their passes, was weak on their back-checks, wasn’t physical and didn’t effectively cycle below the American goal line as they had done so well in their last two games.
Many will blame goaltender Malcolm Subban and, subsequently, claim Jordan Binnington would have done better, and maybe so, but there was not much either of them could have done on any of the goals short of a brilliant save. They simply didn’t show up as a team and are duds as a team.
The Russian forwards seemed in a daze to start the game and as a result their defenders, a group not well thought of as the forwards, were under siege for the first half of the game. In the defensive zone, they resorted to chasing the Swedes around, leaving big holes in the slot that allowed easy access to quality scoring chances.
As was mentioned before, Vasilevski kept the game close enough for them to show up in the second and third periods and tie it up, but ultimately the Russians were lucky after their lackluster start to be able to take it to overtime.
Sweden’s appearance in Saturday’s gold-medal game is their second in as many years after defeating Russia in overtime last year in Alberta. The last time the United States was in the final was in 2010 when they too won in an extra frame, defeating Canada in Saskatoon with a goal from current Washington Capital John Carlson.
The two nations have never faced off in a gold-medal bout and haven’t played a tournament game against each other since the United States won 3-2 in overtime back in 2006 in Vancouver. Shayne Gostisbehere scored in overtime to give the Americans another 3-2 win when the two played a pre-tournament game in Finland back on Dec. 20.
Russia will be seeking to give the home fans a bronze medal as they seek revenge for Canada’s 2-1 victory on New Year’s Eve. The classic questions surrounding the motivation of Canadian players to play in third-place matches will last until proven otherwise, although the Canucks did put together a strong effort in last year’s bronze-medal contest with a 4-1 win over Finland.
With Finland and Slovakia secure from relegation, the biggest game of the tournament for Germany and Latvia will come on Friday as they will face off to avoid dropping to the Division I tournament next year. Norway has already qualified to replace the loser of that matchup in next year’s World Juniors in Sweden.