As the preliminary round of the 2021 World Junior Champion came to a close on New Year’s Eve, the scores were a reminder that the early games at this event are often such mismatches in terms of skill and talent depth that you can’t really tell who is good until the one or two tough matches scheduled for the end.
Both Finland, who had looked very strong in a weak group, and Sweden got rolled over by Canada and USA. Add in the overtime win by Russia over Sweden the day before, and it seems like this is a tournament that will fall to a North American team.
There’s a lot of games between now and the gold-medal game on January 5, though, so a lot can happen. Only one of Sweden or Finland will advance, however as the stars have aligned to pit two of the biggest rivals in hockey against each other early in the playoff rounds.
All games are January 2, 2021. All are on TSN 1, 4 and 5 and available online or through their app (free with a TV subscription, otherwise a paid service).
Russia vs Germany: noon Toronto time
Finland vs Sweden: 3:30 pm
Canada vs Czechia: 7:00 pm
USA vs Slovakia: 10:30 pm
Note the new start times, if you’ve gotten used to the usual schedule. This is the first time there have been four games played in one day, and the Americans and Slovaks might not have the greatest quality ice ever seen in Edmonton. So far the well-practiced ice crew has done a great job, but that’s going to be a challenge.
Sweden - Finland should be the only really close match, although Germany has shown they can hang with better teams early, as can the Czechs. None of the three weak teams in the quarterfinals have shown they have a complete game. The only real success came when the Czechs were playing their traditional rivals the Russians.
The WJC, like all IIHF tournaments stopped running as a bracket event a few years back. Teams are re-seeded for the semifinals, so the results will determine who faces whom based on preliminary round standings.
The order is Canada, USA, Finland, Russia, Sweden, Germany, Czechia, Slovakia (I think this is right as the criteria puts group order ahead of points). The top-ranked winner plays the fourth and the second plays the third in the semifinals. Russia, in other words, would like Finland to lose, assuming Canadian and American wins. Never assume!
Both semifinals are on January 4 at 6:00 pm and 9:30 pm. There is no relegation this year, so no other games are played but the playoffs and medal games.
Scoring Leaders after Preliminary Round
Nominally on the third pair for Finland, Niemelä played 17:00 min per game, ahead of the fourth unit extras and second-pairing Mikko Kokkonen and Kasper Puutio. He had two goals and five assists, and led Finland in points through the four games. He played the power play when Ville Heinola didn’t, and impressed in most games. He seemed extremely overwhelmed against Canada, along with the rest of his team.
Niemelä shoots the puck a lot, and he’s a weave it through traffic defender on the power play, and less of a passer. Heinola (Winnipeg Jets) is the only defender who shot the puck more. Power-play time plays into this of course.
Part of what some are calling the best line in the tournament, Hirvonen played with Anton Lundell (who has been outstanding) and Kasper Simontaival. He had four assists in 14:35 minutes per game, and ended up with 18 PIM. He’s fourth in PIM in the tournament.
He is a feisty, edge-walking player, for all he’s the traditional 5’9” and 170 lbs of a freshly drafted “zippy little winger”. He’s also a centre in his other life in the Liiga.
Watching Finland left quite a few people with the impression that Lundell and Simontaival were the simpatico play-making duo in the vein of Matthews and Marner, with Hirvonen as the support staff. There’s validity to that — he is the player who goes and digs along the boards, or plays a little farther out from the net while Lundell gets right up in the goalie’s face. But it’s Hirvonen who led with 18 shots on goal to Lundell’s 12 and Simontaival’s 9. Power-play activity plays into that, and Hirvonen is very good on the Finnish power play, which is dynamic and reminiscent of the modern Russian ideas seen in the KHL a lot.
Those shot numbers tell the story of Finland though. This line is the team. And they and the top pair defenders featuring Heinola and the third pair featuring Niemelä, who they also play with a little, are the offence. Only two Canadian players match that shooting pace because Canada spreads out the offence over more talent.
Kokkonen, as discussed above, was used as a classic third-pairing defender. He has one assist and played 15:35 per game. He is the respected veteran on the team with more professional league games in his past than anyone else. He plays the PK, he plays a solid, defensively focused game, and much of what the team does with the depth on the ice looks very old-fashioned. Finland has one standard technique to slow down the game or to allow for a line change, and that is the designated puck carrier on each pair — Heinola, Niemelä and Kokkonen — wait behind the net until everyone is ready and then carry it out to the neutral zone and pass it off.
If Kokkonen ends up near the offensive blue line with the puck, he’s inclined to dump it in, and often that seems to be the way line changes are done. They are not a team that values possession to the extent they will carry the puck back and change lines that way.
His PK work is solid and conservative, and his defending is usually fine. His shot isn’t very good, and he’s not a great playmaking passer. There is a reason he’s never risen above utility second-pairing defender in the Liiga. His game is not top-pairing inclined like Niemelä’s is.
Akhtyamov played the game versus Austria, let in one goal, and I refuse to tell you his save percentage, because it doesn’t mean anything. He played very well in a classic backup role.
Scratched twice as a surplus centre, Abramov drew in for two games as the 2C after injury removed the second-line offensive threat Yegor Chinakhov. He has two assists and played just under 14 minutes per game. Chinakhov is a maybe for the quarterfinals, which could make Abramov a maybe as well, although he played well in the final game against Sweden.
Russia looked a little less than dominating all tournament, and saved their absolute best game for last. Abramov was good in the game, particularly late and in overtime, where he excels.
Abramov plays a strong defensive game and is very much willing to dig in deep and work hard in the defensive zone. In this tournament, his offence has seemed workmanlike and uninspired. He’s played very little so far this year, and his QMJHL points last year say he’s got a game that can sparkle, it just hasn’t so far here. Russia lacks offensive depth off the top two lines, and is oversupplied with smart, tough, defensively gifted depth. Abramov is neither fish nor fowl between the two extremes, but he may well get another shot at it against Germany.
Amirov has two goals and four assists, leads his team in points, and has played 16:55 per game. Barring one brief, and largely unsuccessful attempt to spread out the offence that moved him to the second line, he’s played with Vasily Podkolzin and Marat Khusnutdinov.
Amirov and Podkolzin lead the team in shots on goal with 16 and 17 respectively. Only Maxim Groshev is in the double digits aside from them. And that is the story of Team Russia in three numbers. They simply are not generating enough shots, and when they do, they are shooting from weak locations with low percentage chances to score.
In this tournament, Amirov can be very frustrating to watch. Some fans, likely approvingly, have compared him to Ilya Mikheyev. Amirov has a fun personality, moves well with the puck, is feisty and smart and always seems to be doing things focused on offence. That is all very good. However, the comparison is apt in another way. Mikheyev “wastes” a lot of shots. His commitment to rapid fire offence turns into indiscriminate offence that is less and less effective the tougher the league is he plays in. In other words, the jump from the KHL to the NHL involves finding ways to get goals through tightly packed bodies and elite defending. Amirov at 19 has a lot more time to improve his decision making than Mikheyev does.
Shooting location is really the only caveat to his play at the junior level. He is one of the best players in this tournament, and if you imagine playing him with the advantages Hirvonen has (Lundell and Heinola are both upgrades over the Russian counterparts) he would really be more obviously excellent.
Both Finland and Russia can win tomorrow, but Russia will be rightly embarrassed if they lose. Finland will just be angry.