After a blowout-filled round-robin, quarterfinals day at the 2021 World Junior Hockey Championship featured four of the closest games of the entire tournament.
Germany put up a valiant fight against Russia, keeping the score close for most of the game. Unfortunately, they couldn’t score more than once against Yaroslav Askarov and their tournament came to an end as Russia won 2-1.
Sweden jumped out to an early 2-0 lead and looked like they would cruise to an easy quarterfinal win. But Finland dug in, pushed back and completed one of the most stunning comebacks: scoring the game-winning goal with less than 30 seconds left to send Sweden packing with a 3-2 victory.
Although Canada was able to pick up a 3-0 shutout win over the Czech Republic, it was far from an easy win. The Czechs pushed Canada hard all game long and made it difficult for their offence to get going for large stretches of the match.
Slovakia went toe-to-toe with the United States for most of the game, clawing back from a 3-0 deficit to make it a one-goal game late in the third. But the United States pulled away for an eventual 5-2 victory to clinch a semifinal berth.
Here are the three best performances from quarterfinals day at the 2021 world juniors.
Third Star: Roni Hirvonen, Finland
Finland looked defeated and ready to head home after the first period. But to their credit, they picked up the pace tremendously for the remaining 40 minutes and overwhelmed Sweden at every turn.
Although Finland faced some adversity when their first tying goal was disallowed because of an offside challenge, they weren’t deterred. If anything, that served as their motivation for the rest of the game.
Leading the charge was Finland’s top line of Anton Lundell, Roni Hirvonen and Kasper Simontaival. Lundell tied the game about halfway through the third period and the trio outworked the Swedish defence on every shift.
But it was Hirvonen, a Toronto Maple Leafs prospect, who was the hero for the Finns in the end. Hirvonen’s goal came at the perfect time, with Finland pressing relentlessly and Sweden not having much time afterwards to try and tie the game back up.
Although defenceman Ville Heinola was named player of the game at the end, Hirvonen was undoubtedly Finland’s best forward of the game. He and his linemates refused to give up, and they were rewarded in the end.
Finland’s road to a medal doesn’t get any easier from here. Their semifinal match-up will be against the powerhouse USA in a couple of days.
Second Star: Cole Caufield, United States
It’s fitting that on the night the United States redeemed themselves from last year’s early quarterfinal exit, Cole Caufield finally landed back on the scoresheet.
The American sniper, who celebrated his 20th birthday with Team USA’s victory, only had one goal coming into the quarterfinals and many fans were disappointed with his lack of production.
He changed that with a brilliant shot in the second period that went bar-down and gave the United States a 3-0 lead, a goal that would stand as the eventual game-winner.
Caufield likely could have had a couple of more goals had it not been for the brilliance of Slovak goaltender Simon Latkoczy and the goal post. Latkoczy kept the game close as the United States peppered him with shots and robbed Caufield on more than one occasion.
The way the American players celebrated Caufield’s goal was a testament to how badly they wanted to see him score.
On a night where leading scorer Trevor Zegras was rather quiet and banged up during the game, it was a relief to see another member of the United States step up offensively.
Now, the United States will take on Finland in a rematch of a pre-tournament game that USA won 3-2.
First Star: Devon Levi, Canada
Devon Levi may not have been named Canada’s ‘Player of the Game’ against the Czech Republic, but he was sensational in a 29-save shutout performance.
Canada got off to a quick start once again, with goals from Dylan Cozens and Bowen Byram giving them a 2-0 lead.
But for the rest of the game, the Czech Republic shut down the Canadian offence, save for Connor McMichael’s empty-net goal at the end.
The pesky Czechs went back to the playbook they used to upset Russia in the round-robin and nearly pulled off another upset against Canada. They were the first team to not only out-shoot Canada, but also direct more than 20 shots on goal.
The difference-maker in this game was Levi. Canada could not figure out how to stop the Czech attack and Levi was left to his own devices to shut the door, making several point-blank saves to preserve Canada’s lead.
Levi looked calm in the crease all night long, and even felt confident enough to shoot for the empty net as Canada was killing off a penalty in the dying seconds of the third period.
Canada inches closer to doing the near-impossible: repeating as gold medallists at the World Junior Hockey Championship. In order to get there, though, a challenging Russian team stands in their way. It will be a rematch of the pre-tournament game where Canada won 1-0.
Canada will have to pick up the intensity in order to win, something that was lacking for much of their quarterfinal game. But if Levi can continue to play the way he has, Canada will be in good hands.