A slight amount of parity has been introduced to the World Junior Championships, which has seen a break from the Canada and Russia-dominated tournaments of the last two decades.
Four different countries have won gold over the last four years, with Canada, the United States, Russia and Sweden elevating their national junior programs over the likes of Finland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
Fittingly, it’s US vs. Sweden for gold and Canada and Russia matching up for bronze. Can the Americans replicate the thorough dominance they exhibited against the Canadians? Can the Swedes continue to shine in the face of adversity and defend their gold medal despite the injuries to several key veterans? Could Canada return home without a medal for the first time in 15 years?
GOLD MEDAL GAME United States vs. Sweden Saturday, 8 a.m. ET
United States: The Americans forechecked tenaciously against the Canadians in the semifinal win, showing a purpose and focus in making hits on Canadian defensemen deep in the attacking zone. Turnovers ensued, slanting the ice heavily in the direction of Team Canada’s net. There was a jump and a compete level inherent in the Americans’ game that will need to be maintained in its entirety against Sweden — it was as if Canada was never able to weather the early-game storm, turning the majority of the contest into a barrage of rubber directed at goaltenders Malcolm Subban and Jordan Binnington.
This is a US team that has scored 21 goals over its last nine periods. Calgary forward prospect John Gaudreau — who used a brilliant toe-drag to set up a laser-point snipe for one of his two goals in the semifinal — leads the tournament with seven goals and is tied for second with nine points. First rounders J.T. Miller (New York Rangers/15th overall, 2011) and Alex Galchenyuk (Montreal/3rd overall, 2012) have recorded identical stat lines of two goals and six assists thus far.
The United States has received more scoring from its defensemen than any other WJC team. Buffalo prospect and team captain Jake McCabe, who has only two goals for the University of Wisconsin this season, scored twice in the first period against Canada and has tallied three goals, six points, and a team-best plus-seven in this tournament. Winnipeg first rounder Jacob Trouba, who like McCabe is vying to earn several all-tournament awards, has four goals and four assists.
Sweden: Sebastian Collberg’s nifty forehand-backhand shootout move marked the second consecutive year the Montreal second-rounder used a shootout tally to lift his team into the semifinal game. He’s one of an impressive group of six returning forwards from Tre Kronor’s gold medal team a year ago, though his two linemates — Emil Molin and potential top-10 pick Elias Lindholm — are WJC rookies. Nineteen-year-old Rickard Rakell is a creative Anaheim first-rounder who has averaged 0.99 points per game over two-plus seasons with Plymouth in the best developmental league in the world, the OHL. Eighteen-year-old team captain Filip Forsberg is a Washington first-rounder who has a deadly accurate wristshot and has vastly aided an underhanded defensive corps (see below) with heady two-way smarts. He has had an impressive season with first-place Leksands IF of Sweden’s second-tier Allsvenskan, accumulating nine goals and 19 points in 22 games.
Sweden hasn’t relied on an extraordinary amount of defensive scoring, though Mikael Wikstrand, who plays with Anze Kopitar and Bobby Ryan at Allsvenskan outfit Mora IK, has four assists and a plus-four rating in five games and is more of a balanced defenseman than someone with a predilection towards creating offense.
Edge: United States
United States: Though vast stretches of the semifinal occurred deep in Canada’s zone, the American defense was stellar when called upon and continued its standout play in this tournament. Immediately after McCabe’s first goal opened up the scoring, Canada was able to create a three-on-one partial break entering the US zone after the ensuing faceoff. Seth Jones, 6-4, a projected top-two NHL Draft pick this June, dove to poke the puck away before the Canadian right wing was able to attempt a centering pass. Jones, in his first year of major junior hockey with the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks, showed as much poise and calm intuition in the win over Canada than in any tournament game — he has six assists and is the second-leading defensive scorer in the tourney. The top defensive scorer is Trouba (four goals, four assists, eight points and +1), a player known more for the nasty streak and all-around dynamic play with which he competes. He has been a terrific shot blocker and a major physical presence for the Americans in becoming the tournament’s best defenseman and has as good of a shot from the point as any blueliner in the gold medal game.
All US defensemen were excellent with their sticks when called upon in their defensive zone, highlighted by Jones’ all-or-nothing diving attempt.
Sweden’s ability to advance to the gold medal game with a slew of defensemen missing has been perhaps the most impressive storyline of the tournament. Edmonton prospect Oscar Klefbom (shoulder), Minnesota prospect Jonas Brodin (clavicle) and Anaheim prospect Hampus Lindholm (concussion) are all first-round NHL Draft picks sidelined by injuries — with Klefbom and Brodin having captured gold a year ago. Tom Nilsson picked up Sweden’s Player of the Game honors in the semifinal win over Russia and has given the team excellent minutes while settling into a top pairing role. Another teammate of Kopitar and Ryan’s at Mora IK, the Toronto fourth-rounder plays a strong positional game and isn’t one to turn the puck over easily against the relentless American forecheck that continually flustered Canada. Wikstrand, Nilsson’s Mora IK teammate and Ottawa prospect, isn’t particularly dominant in any asset of his game but plays with poise and intelligence and isn’t afraid to shy away from the game’s grittier moments. When those players are not on the ice, the performance of Florida second-rounder Rasmus Bengtsson and 18-year-old Elitserien rookie Christian Djoos, a Washington prospect, will determine if the Swedes can neutralize the American attack.
Edge: United States
United States: If the Americans win gold, it’s because John Gibson was the best goaltender in the tournament, and likely turned in the best American performance by a goaltender in World Junior history. In the same creases that heralded netminders Andrei Vasilevski and Subban suffered through occasional lapses, Gibson has been a model of consistency. The Anaheim second-rounder boasts a .954 save percentage through six games, numbers no American goaltender has touched on this stage. His 1.42 goals-against average is a tournament-best. First-period saves on Ryan Strome and Jonathan Drouin in the win over Canada allowed the US to build on its early leads. Gibson has allowed only eight goals through 17 periods.
Sweden: Niklas Lundstrom and Joel Lassinantti have backstopped Sweden to wins in all five games they’ve played and have combined for a 1.90 save percentage despite the key players missing on defense. Lundstrom, a 19-year-old St. Louis prospect who backstopped Sweden to its shootout semifinal win over Russia, has appeared in 11 games in the top-flight Elitserien with AIK. Lassinantti, also 19, has an .888 save percentage in 16 games while on loan to struggling Allsvenskan outfit Almtuna IS in his professional debut and has a 2.42 goals-against average and .916 save percentage in Ufa. Lundstrom is likely to get the nod against the Americans, who have registered a tournament-high 244 shots on goal.
Edge: United States
United States: Though they were scoreless on the man advantage and allowed a short-handed goal in the win over Canada, the US has gone 12-for-39 on the power play, good for a 30.8 percent clip. A strong shot-blocking team, the US penalty kill has allowed only two goals on 25 chances for a 92.0 percent success rate. The Americans are yet to score a short-handed goal. They’re also the tournament’s most penalized team, not necessarily a good combination with Sweden’s effective power play.
Sweden: Elias Lindholm opened the scoring with a power-play goal in the 3-2 shootout win over Russia, helping pace a unit which has led the tournament with a 36.7 percent success rate. The Swedes’ penalty kill is middle-tiered, operating at 78.3 percent. Eighteen-year-old sparkplug Filip Sandberg has the team’s lone short-handed goal.
United States: Head coach Phil Housley will need to ensure that the Americans don’t suffer any post-Canada drop-off in play. The Americans won’t be looking for a fancy or complicated type of game, instead relying on getting pucks deep, forechecking relentlessly, making hits on opposing defensemen and getting low shots to the front of the net while looking to pounce on rebounds. Gaudreau’s snipe against Canada came in the progression of play following several outstanding Gibson saves and as the result of hard work. Defense and goaltending will have to be the centerpieces of an American victory, unlike the wild 6-5 overtime win over Canada three years ago. The US will not be looking for a wide-open, end-to-end game, nor will it be looking to play past 60 minutes.
Sweden: The defending gold medal winners, Sweden has valiantly battled through injuries that wreaked havoc on its blueline and is undefeated in its title defense. The Swedes carry an 11-game WJC winning streak into Saturday’s finale, going a perfect 6-0 in overtime or in a shootout over the last two tournaments. They haven’t lost at World Juniors since a 4-2 setback to the United States in the bronze medal game on January 5, 2011.
United States: Can Gibson go the entire tournament without a hiccup?
Can the US maintain its other-worldly offensive output?
Is Galchenyuk a big-game player who steps up with a big performance in a big game?
Sweden: Are the depth defensemen capable of providing quality minutes against the tournament’s most accomplished offense?
Does Sweden have enough pure goal-scoring ability that can allow it to come from behind?
Is Sweden capable of another two power-play goal performance?
Prediction: United States 4, Sweden 2
BRONZE MEDAL GAME
Canada vs. Russia Saturday, 4 a.m. ET
It’s the game that neither longtime rival wanted to play in, and it carries the potential to get nasty. Canada hasn’t been denied a medal since 1998, while Russia has earned medals in 16 of 19 tournaments since 1994. These are clearly the two most decorated countries in this tournament’s history, and they may also be the most skilled teams in this year’s event.
The game will also provide another opportunity for Edmonton’s two most recent first-overall draft picks Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (2011) and Nail Yakupov (2013) to share the ice, albeit on opposite benches. Nugent-Hopkins had three assists and took five shots in Canada’s 4-1 win over Russia last week. He’’ll need to be at least as invested in Saturday’s game after a sagging performance against the US. If held scoreless, his 11 total points will ring awfully hollow.
The Canadians should benefit from a livelier arena when playing against the hosts, even if they’re the visitors — after hosting the event two of the last three years (and feeling right at home in Buffalo, NY, two years ago), a half-empty building in an afternoon semifinal game seemed to suck the life out of Canada in the semifinals. This game is also a “second chance” of sorts for the Canadians, who still have the ability to end the tournament with a win and return home on a positive note, even if they’ll always be judged on whether they capture the gold medal.
Head coach Steve Spott decided Friday that he wouldn’t go back to Subban. Binnington stopped 25 of 26 shots in Subban’s absence and will make the start Saturday.
Andrei Vasilevski entered the tournament with credentials as strong as any goaltender’s and has posted one shutout to go along with a 1.81 goals-against average and .950 save percentage. Andrei Makarov is another quality option in net for Russia, which has received five goals and eight points from forward Nikita Kucherov. Russia has allowed an eye-popping 41.5 shots against per game.