The preliminary round of the WJC has wrapped up so now we know who has to play in the relegation round and who is moving on the the quarterfinal with gold still a possibility.
A loss makes things more difficult for Canada while the Russians, true to form, are really starting to heat up when it matters. The Czechs’ MVP has been an unlikely player on a roster with some high-end NHL prospects, while Sweden and the United States coast through with the top two seeds in Group B. And while a centre is starring for the Red White and Blue, it’s not the projected No. 1 overall draft pick carrying the load, but a Montreal Canadiens centre prospect.
Here’s what we took away from the last day of the preliminary round.
DOSTAL IS THE BEST CZECH STORY OF PRELIMINARY ROUND
Coming in as upset hopefuls with at least a shot to be the first WJC medallists from their country since 2005, it was a disappointing opening round for the Czech Republic.
They played well enough to knock off the Russians, but allowed two shorthanded goals as that opportunity slipped away. They managed just four goals in three games heading into their preliminary round wrap-up against the Danes, and were forced to put all their eggs in one basket by loading up their top line. And, sure, the Czechs beat Denmark 4-0, but head into the medal round with just three goals total between Martin Kaut (2), Martin Necas (1) and Filip Zadina (0). Their power play ranks ninth, better than only Denmark.
But the good story for the Czechs — and one that will seemingly have to lead the way if that elusive upset is going to happen — is what they got in net. Lukas Dostal led the way with two wins including the shutout against Denmark, and finishes the opening round of the WJC with the second-best save percentage (.960) and goals-against average (1.00).
Drafted 85th overall in 2018 by the Anaheim Ducks, Dostal is the latest example of strong scouting by the Californian NHL team. With Swede Isac Lundestrom and Canadian Max Comtois playing lead scoring roles for their higher profile teams, the Ducks are seeing strong results from their WJC entrants and Dostal deserves to be mentioned with the best of them. He’s been a highlight reel regular and, in fact, if not for a stellar 2-on-1 save on New Year’s Eve, Denmark would have scored their first goal of the tournament.
SWEDEN’S DEFENCE HAS DOMINATED THE WJC THUS FAR
Two days after winning the most exciting game of the tournament so far, Team Sweden’s blue line was again on display as it closed out the preliminary round with an expected win against Kazakhstan to clinch top spot in their pool.
And the blue line continued to be key for this team. Even without Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Timothy Liljegren, who is missing the WJC due to a high ankle sprain, the position has been the difference for this year’s Tre Kronor. Erik Brannstrom has taken all the headlines with four goals so far, but Adam Boqvist was the hero versus the Americans and a different Leafs prospect, Rasmus Sandin, played the lead role Monday night.
Five defencemen have scored at least four points in the WJC so far and three of them come from Sweden. Brannstrom was a first-round pick of Vegas and Boqvist was a highly celebrated top-10 pick by Chicago, but Sandin, who the Leafs picked up at the tail end of Round 1 in 2018, has been just as effective.
— David Nestico (@davidnestico200) December 31, 2018
His 10 points in 18 games with the Toronto Marlies are the second-most by an under-20 defencemen in the AHL behind only Brannstrom. These blueliners are three of the Swedes’ top four scorers and the best of all these eligible players — Rasmus Dahlin — is excelling in the NHL. This is the level we’ve come to expect from a nation so great at developing defencemen.
With the first place finish in Group B, Sweden will meet Switzerland in the medal round.
SLOW-STARTING RUSSIANS GET ALL THE WAY TO TOP OF GROUP A
In recent years it hasn’t been often that Russia comes in and dominates a WJC from beginning to end. As we mentioned in a previous takeaways article, they’re generally slow starters in this tournament who come on strong later — and judging by their 2-1 win over Canada on New Year’s Eve, this year’s Russians are fully in stride now.
The Russians started with a narrower-than-expected win over Denmark, then probably should have been upset by the Czechs but found a way through on the back of two shorthanded goals. Their 7-4 win over Switzerland Sunday night was one of the more wild games of the WJC and too wide open for the coaching staff to have enjoyed it.
But their win against Canada to seal first place in Group A was a stellar all-around effort.
First their penalty kill, which was the deciding factor against the Czechs and has killed 93.33 per cent of its opportunities, shut out the Canadians. Canada’s seventh-ranked power play has been its primary weakness so far and has to be better in the medal round if they’re going to go all the way.
Russian goalie Pyotr Kochetkov likely earned the start in the medal round with another solid outing highlighted by a wild cross-crease save on Comtois. He first came on to the radar with three excellent outings in the CIBC Canada-Russia Series
And on top of it all, Russia’s top line of Grigori Denisenko, Klim Kostin and Vitali Kravstov was again a standout unit that carried the play against Canada more often than not.
So is it time to worry if you’re a Team Canada fan? The worst thing about this game is how the Russians seemed to win the physical battles most of the time and Pavel Shen’s game-winning goal was a little too easy as he weaved his way into the zone and right to the front of the net without having a body laid on him.
And, yes, the power play is a concerning situation right now. Head coach Tim Hunter will surely be considering ways to shake it up because there are no easy matchups any more — and with the Canadians facing the possibility of having to get through Finland, Sweden, and perhaps Russia again to win gold, they’ll need to take advantage of any offensive opportunity they can get. And that means scoring on more than 20 per cent of their power plays.
The good news for Canada is they don’t seem to have a fatal flaw. Michael DiPietro, after a shaky first start in the pre-tournament games, has been up to the task and very much a strength for the team. Canada’s top line of Cody Glass, Comtois and Owen Tippett has been consistent and scored again Monday. And Canada has been getting good play from their depth players, primarily guys like MacKenzie Entwistle.
The road will be tougher for Canada now following this loss to the Russians, but it’s hard to worry about them right now on home ice. The Russians, meanwhile, draw Slovakia in the medal round and are in a strong position to win their first gold since 2011.
CANADIENS FANS THRILLED WITH RYAN POEHLING’S TOURNAMENT
Remember when the Montreal Canadiens were completely devoid of centre depth? Well, this season Max Domi and Phillip Danault are playing well at the NHL level, and in the NCAA Ryan Poehling has been taking a step and adding an element to his game.
The 25th-overall pick in 2017 projected as more of a second- or even third-line centre when he was drafted, but his offensive game has grown leaps and bounds since that day. This year he’s got 17 points in 16 games for St. Cloud State and, through the preliminary round at the WJC, he leads all skaters with five goals and eight points in four games.
His best game was the hat trick against Sweden that forced overtime beyond all odds, but he capped off the first round with another goal against Finland — scoring the 3-0 marker that seemed to seal the win.
With Jack Hughes out of the lineup the Americans have been missing their flashiest offensive player — Jack’s brother Quinn said he would have thrived in that game against Sweden. So it’s been a blessing to have another centre in Poehling more than double his total output from last year’s WJC.
With the 4-1 win over Finland, the Americans will now face the Czech Republic in the medal round and hold a distinct advantage on the offensive side of the puck.
— Stars n’ Stripes Hockey (@StarsStripesHKY) January 1, 2019
But although Poehling has been a star on offence, his defensive game is never too far away. His two-way excellence has made him the team MVP to this point, which has to have Canadiens fans even more thrilled for what he’ll do in his pro career.