With the round robin completed at the World Junior Championships, there were only a few surprises. The teams landed in fairly predictable places, and the quarterfinal matchups are set for Tuesday, January 2.
It did take until the very last game of the preliminaries, the New Year’s Eve tilt between Sweden and Russia, to decide the final placings in their pool. Timothy Liljegren saved it for the last game, and he was solid throughout. He scored his first goal, got an assist, played very well and featured heavily in a strangely configured three-on-three overtime.
Sweden didn’t need to win in overtime, they just didn’t want to lose, and they had just lost Lias Andersson to an injury at the end of regulation. They also have several slightly more offensively gifted defencemen than usual. So they paired up the two biggest goal threats on D, Rasmus Dahlin and Erik Brännström, and put them out with a defensive-minded forward.
The next crew was Liljegren, defender Jesper Sellgren and a different forward. Liljegren was excellent keeping the puck alive, playing the man to turn it over when Russia thought they’d like a turn, and while it took a shootout to win it, Sweden dominated the overtime in possession time and had the edge in shots on goal. Look for some NHL coach with a goalie he likes in the shootout to try this trick.
With that win, Sweden enter the quarterfinals undefeated in preliminary games going back years. They haven’t done well in medal rounds, however. They really have the team that can change that this year, but do they have the team that can handle the red machine? Canada lost in a shootout to the Americans in the snowbowl for their only blemish on their record, and they look very strong in net, at forward and at defence.
Russia and the USA can beat any team on any given day, but they don’t seem like they have quite the complete teams to challenge for gold. But you never know, single game elimination creates surprises.
All quarterfinals are on TSN.
Finland at Czech Republic - 12:00 noon: This match is a real tossup. Finland have disappointed at times, and the Czechs play a tight, tough game. Eemeli Räsänen was cut and is back with the Frontenacs, so there’s no Leafs interest here. The winner of this game plays the winner of Canada-Switzerland in the semifinals.
Switzerland at Canada - 4:00 p.m.: This match should be a rout. Even if the Swiss play their best match, they just aren’t in the class of the top six in this tournament.
Slovakia at Sweden - 6:00 p.m.: You might need to go searching down the dial to find this on TSN 3, but like the Canada match, this should be an easy win for Sweden. Slovakia are tougher than the Swiss, but they aren’t actually much better. Sweden does need to show respect and play it like a real match, however, as Slovakia have good goalies and surprised the USA with a win in the preliminaries. The winner of this game plays the winner of Russia-USA in the semifinals.
Russia at USA - 8:00 p.m.: This match is too close to call. Russia has some very good forwards, and Klim Kostin is the closest to an NHL player in this tournament (sorry Victor Mete) but the USA has electrifying offence and better defenders. It might come down to who has the hot goalie. It’s not known yet if the USA will go with Toronto’s Joseph Woll or if they’ll opt for Jake Oettinger who got the win over Canada.
The relegation round is between Belarus and Denmark, to no one’s surprise, and Belarus should win it easy. The WJC could cut the top division to eight teams, shorten the preliminary round, get rid of the blowout easy wins, and they’d make it more exciting and improve the level of competition at the next level down at the same time.
There’d be real jeopardy over who landed in relegation, and real meaning to promotion. But the IIHF won’t do it, and I can tell you right now that the probability of next year’s relegation game being between Belarus and Kazakhstan is very high. I guess when you barely sell any tickets to preliminary games, you need a lot of them to make it pay off.
Another opinion on the chances of each team: