It was a wild and crazy quarterfinal round with a couple of huge upsets that will send either a third- or fourth-place team from the prelims into the gold medal game.
On the other side of the bracket, though, two historical powerhouses remain and both are heating up just as the games are getting more important. Here are our takeaways from an up and down eighth day of the World Junior Championship.
THE SWISS SURPRISE
Team Switzerland head coach Christian Wohlwend may be the most quotable person involved in the tournament. And with Switzerland on to the semifinal after their huge 2-0 upset against Sweden, everyone will be eager to see what Wohlwend has to say ahead the game.
Last year the Swiss played Canada in the quarterfinal and were clobbered 8-2. But that was mostly a team of underagers, which has grown up into a collection of 19-year-olds who, while they lack an individual talent at the level of Nico Hischier, have given stiff tests to all of the top nations along the way.
First, they lost 5-3 to Canada in a pre-tournament game to give them a little scare. When the tournament started, the Swiss dropped one-goal games to both the Czech Republic and Canada, then were involved in one of the most thrilling games so far — a 7-4 loss to Russia in which the Swiss had a couple of two-goal leads.
And now they’re on to the semifinal for the first time since 2010.
It’s true that in each of the past four tournaments the team with the best power play has won the gold medal, and the Swiss aren’t anything special there. Scoring 18.8 per cent of the time, only Finland has a worse PP of the remaining teams. But Switzerland’s penalty killing is a different story and perhaps this is where they can find some leverage.
The Swiss PK has already kept both Canada and Sweden off the board and has the third-best kill rate in the WJC. The danger is that it looks like Aleksi Heponiemi (Panthers) and Eeli Tolvanen (Predators) are coming around from slow starts and those are exactly the type of high-pro experience players Switzerland doesn’t have.
Prior to last year’s game against Canada, Wohlwend was asked about pressure, saying: “I don’t know that word, pressure. We don’t have pressure at all.”
But now the Swiss are playing with a shot at history and perhaps caught a bit of fortune with the home team getting knocked out of the tournament.
A win would guarantee them their first medal since they won bronze in 1998, and just their second ever medal in the WJC. Switzerland has never played for gold before.
SWEDEN’S TOURNAMENT ENDS IN DISAPPOINTMENT
Coming out of the preliminary round you wouldn’t have looked bad saying Sweden were the favourites to win gold. They were fast. Their defencemen were elite. Their goaltending was more than up to the task. Sure, their special teams weren’t firing on all cylinders but there were a lot of other elements to like here.
And now this.
The 2019 WJC is the first time Sweden falls short of the semifinal since 2006, when the tournament was held in… you guessed it, Vancouver. This loss to Switzerland was the first time they’ve been shut out at a WJC since that tournament, too, when Finland’s Tuukka Rask slammed the door on them.
It’s amazing and heartbreaking to see a team that’s been as dominant as the Swedes have been in the preliminary round over the past decade to fail to come through with gold again and again. They were perfect in Group B this year, too, and are now 48-0 in the preliminary round dating back to 2008. But in that time Sweden has seven medals, only one of which is gold.
CANADA FAILS TO MEDAL AT HOME FOR THE FIRST TIME
Another upset followed the Swiss toppling of Sweden, although Finland’s 2-1 overtime win against Canada isn’t exactly on the same scale.
It may have been easy for some fans to look past this game. Not only had Finland struggled in the preliminary round with the second-worst power play and the eighth-ranked overall offence, but Canada came in having earned a medal in every WJC they had hosted.
But the Finns continued to turn this tournament on its head with an improbable late win they didn’t need much offence to pull off. An awkward goal in the final minute that Tolvanen hit off the back of the net, then deflected off the leg of Heponiemi and in, forced overtime. Even there Canada had a chance to win when it was awarded a penalty shot following an Evan Bouchard breakaway.
In international rules you can choose whoever you want to shoot and Maxime Comtois, as good as he’s been throughout the WJC, couldn’t convert. Luck turned in Finland’s favour shortly after, when Noah Dobson had a gaping net to blast a one-timer into that would have sealed the game, but instead his stick snapped in two. Finland led a rush the other way that finished with a goal from Toni Utunen off Cody Glass’ stick as he tried to defend the net. Don Cherry is having nightmares.
In Canada’s two biggest tests of the tournament versus Russia and Finland they totalled just two goals and their power play — a sore spot during the prelims — didn’t convert in either of those games.
As much as this loss will sting Canada and the young players representing the country, this game was just as much a testament to the tenacity of the Finnish team. Despite having no goals to this point, Tolvanen had tons of chances against Canada. Goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen has possibly been the best goalie through the entire tournament. And in the quarterfinal, Finland outshot Canada in every period, holding a 34-25 advantage overall.
JACK HUGHES WAS BACK AND HE’S FANTASTIC
With the projected No. 1-overall pick missing three of the four preliminary round games, we didn’t really get much of a look at him on this high level. In the little we did see, he was electric and when he returned to action in the quarterfinal it didn’t take long for Quinn’s little brother to remind us why some team will be lucky to call out his name this June.
Sweden and Canada’s losses earlier in the day don’t do anything to help the Americans’ trip to the gold medal game as they’ll play the tough Russians in the semis, but Hughes’ dynamism is what could make a huge difference for them. Ryan Poehling stepped up and was the leading scorer through the prelim, while others such as Tyler Madden and Jason Robertson have had good tournaments, but none of them are the real offensive, game-breaking talent that Hughes is.
The WJC is really a tournament for 19-year-olds and draft-eligible players rarely shine. But Hughes is an exception. He didn’t look banged up against the Czechs, although the tough-in-the-corners and defensively strong Russians will be challenging on a different level. Goals have been hard to come by for just about everyone so all it may take to advance to the gold medal game is Hughes finding some open ice at the right time.
It just depends on what kind of game this next one will be…
RUSSIANS HAVE FOUND THEIR GROOVE
Earlier in this tournament we asked the question: What will set this Russian team apart? They didn’t look so dominant against Denmark and then should have been upset by the Czechs before winning a great game against Canada.
We noted that Russia is an historically slow starter at the WJC and that even the last time they won gold in 2011, they lost two prelim games. True to form, the Russians have gotten better with each day and the Slovaks ran into a buzz saw in the quarterfinal.
The top line of first-rounders Klim Kostin (Blues), Grigori Denisenko (Panthers) and Vitali Kravtsov (Rangers) has been the most dominant trio over the past few days and are three of the top 12 scorers at the WJC. They’re beginning to separate as the best line in this tournament and might be what answers our question and sets this Russian team apart.
The Russians have shown two sides, though. Against Canada they were a tight-checking group that was better along the boards. Against Switzerland they let it out a little more and scored seven goals. So how will the semifinal against USA play out: full-on offence, or cautious checking?