Thus far, the 2018 World Junior Championships have played out about how everyone would have expected as the tournament kicked off. Belarus and Denmark will play in the relegation round, and the top eight teams are through to the quarterfinals. The biggest upset at the tournament to this point was the 3-2 victory by Slovakia over the United States, a game that the Americans quickly put behind them to win in comeback fashion against Canada less than 24 hours later.
USA-Canada continues as marquee matchup
One of the most underrated rivalries in sports is the one between the United States and Canada’s U20 teams. The games are always fast, close-scoring, physical contests that live up to the billing. This year, the tournament added that rivalry to the swirling winds and snow showers of New Era Field, and it was something special. I was not a big proponent of the outdoor game in preliminary play before the tournament for many reasons, but the conditions, comeback, and shootout win for the Americans on home turf was everything the IIHF could have hoped for.
Canada cruised through three of their four preliminary games, with their reward being a matchup with Switzerland in the quarters, and although the United States took care of business against the Finns and Danes, their hiccup against Slovakia brings on a tough matchup with the Russians on Tuesday. With the United States and Canada on opposite sides of the bracket, the two teams could again meet in the tournament’s Gold Medal Game on Friday, January 5th.
Breaking down the Quarterfinals
A solid four-pack of games are on the schedule for tomorrow, with these matchups deciding the teams that will play for a medal.
Czech Republic vs. Finland: 12:00 p.m., KeyBank Center
The day kicks off with what should be a good contest between Finland and the Czech Republic. It’s a must-watch for Hurricanes fans as Martin Necas will go head-to-head with prospect counterpart Janne Kuokkanen. The winner of this game will (likely) face Canada in the semi-finals for a chance to play for gold. Finland lost to Canada on day one of the tournament, and although the Czechs didn’t play Canada in the preliminary round, they did face them in a couple ofnon-competitive pre-tournament games. This is a much different Czech roster, however, and one that is in much better form.
Canada vs. Switzerland: 4:00 p.m., KeyBank Center
Everything you need to know about this matchup can be summed up by the Swiss coach.
This is Team Switzerland #WorldJuniors Coach Christian Wohlwend talking about his teams chances again Canada in the quarterfinals.— Bar South N Celly™ (@BarSouthNCelly) December 31, 2017
This is also the words of a defeated man, who has lost all hope in his job. pic.twitter.com/YW15pgKPzB
An upset would be a monumental win for Switzerland, but very unlikely.
Sweden vs. Slovakia: 6:00 p.m., HarborCenter
Sweden was the only team to win all four games of their preliminary slate, giving up just seven goals in the process. Slovakia has proven to be a hard-working, well coached group so far in the tournament, despite having to bridge a pretty wide talent gap in the majority of their games. Goaltender Roman Durny has been terrific throughout the tournament and will need to steal one here.
United States vs. Russia: 8:00 p.m., KeyBank Center
The final game of the day likely will be the best, with Russia and the United States matching up for a shot at the medal round. The Russians got wins over Switzerland and Belarus in preliminary play, but fell to tougher competition in the Czech Republic and Sweden, losing both games by one goal. The United States will look to neutralize young stars Klim Kostin and Andrei Svechnikov, and take advantage of Russia’s blueline with their forecheck and possession game.
Checking In on Canes Prospects
In short, this has been Martin Necas’s tournament. He has been terrific, driving play in each game, no matter the competition. His six points in four games rank in a tie for second behind USA’s Casey Mittelstadt, and his partnership with 2018 draft prospect Filip Zadina has been fun to watch. Necas has starred in all facets of the game, showcasing his speed and power in one-on-one situations, creating scoring chances for his teammates, as well as being relentless in possession.
On the other side of the coin, Jake Bean and Janne Kuokkanen haven’t been as dominant, but have had some good moments throughout the tournament. I liked the game that Kuokkanen played in Finland’s opening game against Canada, where he produced a lot of chances both five-on-five and with the man advantage for his teammates that failed to be finished. The young center could have picked up a couple points if Eeli Tolvanen could have gotten pucks on net early in the tournament. Looking at the numbers, the Checkers forward has one point in four games, but does rank second among Finland forwards in shots on goal. So much of the Finnish offense comes from their defense, which was to be expected, but I was hoping to see a bit more point production from Finland’s top center.
Bean played a team high 24 minutes in Canada’s dominating win over Denmark, and has tallied two assists through four games. Canada has played defense by committee in this tournament, and Bean has fit into the group well. As the games get more difficult in the semi-finals and potentially the finals, it will be interesting if Carolina’s top defensive prospect gets similar usage.
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