WJC semifinals preview: USA faces Canada

An excellent pair of semifinal matchups at the World Junior Ice Hockey Championships would make tonight an excellent night to make sure there’s still recording room on the DVR.

The United States faces Canada at 4 a.m. ET, followed by an 8 a.m. Russia-Sweden rematch of the 2012 gold medal game won 1-0 by Sweden in overtime. The four teams represented in the semifinals are the last four teams to win the tournament, with Sweden capturing gold in 2012, Russia in 2011, the US in 2010 and Canada in 2009.

Here’s a preview of tomorrow morning’s games in Ufa, Russia, which feature a bevy of elite National Hockey League prospects.

Canada vs. United States
Thursday, 4 a.m. ET

USA Pool Play (W-OTW-OTL-L) : 2-0-0-2; third place, Group B
USA GF / GA: 5 GP; 26 GF / 7 GA
USA Quarterfinal Game: USA 7, CZE 0
USA Leading Scorer: Jacob Trouba (4-4=8); Alex Galchenyuk (2-6=8)
USA Leading Goalie: John Gibson (3-2; 1 SHO; 1.51 GAA; .933 Sv%)

Canada Pool Play (W-OTW-OTL-L) : 4-0-0-0; first place, Group B
Canada GF / GA: 4 GP; 21 GF / 8 GA
Canada Quarterfinal game: BYE
Canada Leading Scorer: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (3-8=11)
Canada Leading Goalie: Malcolm Subban (4-0; 0 SHO; 2.00 GAA; .930 Sv%)

Preview: Since defeating Canada in overtime of the 2010 WJC gold medal game, the United States has gone winless against its northern rivals in this tournament. Canada has won the last three meetings against the US, defeating the Americans in the 2011 semifinals and in pool play in 2012 and 2013, outscoring the red, white and blue 9-4 over the three-game stretch. This year, the Canadians edged the Americans 2-1 in group play.

Averaging a shade under three points per game in pool play, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (3-8=11, +6) is doing exactly what was expected of him in a tournament he wouldn’t have participated in had the NHL labor situation been settled long ago.

The center will skate at even strength with 17-year-old phenom and projected high draft pick Jonathan Drouin (2-2=4), who averaged a point per game in group play, as well as Winnipeg first rounder Mark Scheifele (4-2=6), another player whose participation would have been in doubt had the NHL season started.

Like the United States, Canada has top-flight talent on defense; its depth at defense is a notch above the Americans’. Dougie Hamilton (1-1=2, +4) scored on a power play rocket one-timer in a win over Russia on Dec. 31 and is a strong candidate to step into the Boston Bruins’ lineup as soon as the NHL returns.

The well-rounded 6-foot-5 reigning CHL defenseman of the year has excellent mobility and will see extensive minutes as the anchor of the Canadian blue line. Scott Harrington (0-1=1, +5) is more of a stay-at-home type with sound positioning, while Morgan Rielly (1-2=3, +5) is an excellent, elusive skater capable of creating offense and Ryan Murphy (0-0=0, +2) is a power play string-puller unafraid to fire off shots from the point.

Malcolm Subban gives the Canadians a presence in goal they might not have had in the previous two or three tournaments and after shaking off a minor funk in the tournament, was excellent in wins over the United States and Russia.

The combination of special teams and goaltending usually provides the right recipe to win road games, and a feisty United States team much better than its 2-2 group play record, will look for more of the same – while cutting down on its tournament-high 113 penalty minutes.

This team is rock-solid defensively and allowed a total of four goals to Canada and Russia in a pair of 2-1 losses. Not surprisingly, Winnipeg first rounder and University of Michigan defenseman Jacob Trouba (4-4=8; +2) has used this tournament as a coming-out party and is likely to qualify for the all-tournament team.

Known much for his intensity and for the focused physicality with which he plays, he’s shown off an enormous shot from the point and leads the tournament’s top power play with three power play goals. He has been very involved in all situations on the ice and will see plenty of time against the waves of skilled forwards Canada will roll.

Seth Jones (1-6=7, +4) is a projected No. 1 or No. 2 pick at this summer’s NHL Draft and will have pressure to play up to the standards he set for Team USA before the tournament, when he labeled them as the “best team.”

Jones has had occasional lapses but has been remarkably poised in all areas of the ice, especially considering he’s a late-1994 birthday. When not receiving contributions from its blue line, Alex Galchenyuk (2-6=8, +2) and reigning NCAA champion John Gaudreau of Boston College (5-1=6, even) have been important figures who will need to be able to score at even strength against the Canadians, as the United States’ 12-for-33 power play is not sustainable in the medal rounds.

In goal, Anaheim second rounder John Gibson was excellent in narrow losses to Canada and Russia, stopping 58 of 62 shots in a performance he’ll have to maintain if the US is going to medal. The Russians won the gold medal on American soil two years ago; can the US return the favor? “You haven’t seen our best hockey,” said United States captain Jake McCabe on Wednesday. “The team that wins the tournament is the team that gets better every game. You have to improve every game. Playing Canada is going to be emotional again. We’re going to be ready for it.”

Prediction: Canada 3, United States 2

Sweden vs. Russia
Thursday, 8 a.m. ET

Sweden Pool Play (W-OTW-OTL-L): 3-1-0-0; first place, Group A
Sweden GF / GA: 4 GP; 19 GF / 8 GA
Sweden Quarterfinal Game: Bye
Sweden Leading Scorer: Victor Arvidsson (4-1=5), Sebastian Collberg (3-2=5), Rickard Rakell (0-5=5), Emil Molin (2-3=5)
Sweden Leading Goalie: Joel Lassinantti (2-0; 0 SHO; 2.42 GAA; .916 Sv%)

Russia Pool Play (W-OTW-OTL-L) : 2-1-0-1; second place, Group B
Russia GF / GA: 5 GP; 17 GF / 10 GA
Russia Quarterfinal game: Russia 4, Switzerland 3 (SO)
Russia Leading Scorer: Nikita Kucherov (5-2=7, +4)
Russia Leading Goalie: Andrei Vasilevski (2-0; 1 SHO; 1.54 GAA; .958 Sv%)

Preview: Sweden has handled adversity remarkably well in this tournament after having lost three defensemen chosen in the first round of the NHL Draft, two of which were returnees seeking to defend a gold medal. Edmonton prospect Oscar Klefbom (shoulder), Minnesota prospect Jonas Brodin (clavicle) and Hampus Lindholm (concussion), selected sixth overall by Anaheim at the 2012 draft, were injured before the tournament began and as as result, opened up minutes for a group of blue liners thrust into much larger roles.

Mikael Vikstrand (0-4=4, +4) and Tom Nilsson (0-2=2, +3) have excelled in the wider opportunity. Nilsson, a Toronto Maple Leafs prospect, was described as “the best defenseman on the Swedish team” by former Legion of Doom line forward Mikael Renberg, now a Swedish broadcaster. “He’s a steady defenseman, he plays physical when he needs to play physical,” Renberg said.

After finishing first amongst a group of teams that did not include Canada, Russia or the United States, he’ll run the risk of overexposure once the quality of the competition is vastly increased. Much like the team’s makeshift defense, it’s more about who isn’t playing up front for Sweden rather than who is. Mika Zibanejad, last year’s golden goal hero in the 1-0 championship win over Russia, was not cleared by Ottawa and is currently playing in Binghamton rather than Ufa. There are still a number of offensive threats in Washington first rounder Filip Forsberg (2-2=4, +1), Montreal second rounder Sebastian Collberg (3-2=5, even) and Anaheim first rounder Rickard Rakell (0-5=5, +3).

Collberg is likely to skate with Dallas prospect Emil Molin (2-3=5, even) and potential 2013 top-10 pick Elias Lindholm (1-2=3, even). There is enough offensive depth to counter what would appear to be the weakest goaltending of the four remaining teams, not that Joel Lassinantti or Niklas Lundstrom, a pair of 19-year-old goaltenders in Sweden’s professional leagues, have been much of a cause for concern.

Lundstrom, a St. Louis draft pick, has posted better overall numbers (2-0, 1.25, .956), though he has seen fewer important minutes in the tournament. He plays for second-tier Almtuna, while Lassinantti plays for Elitserien outfit AIK. Like the Americans, the Swedes have found vast success on the power play against inferior competition, finishing the group stage with 10 power play goals on 28 opportunities.

The Russians emerged from the quarterfinals by the skin of their teeth with a 4-3 four-round shootout win over Switzerland after erasing a late third period deficit on Nikita Kucherov’s fifth goal of the tournament. Kucherov (2-5=7, +4), who also netted the shootout winner, has been Russia’s best forward as 2012 first overall draft pick Nail Yakupov (1-4=5, even) has looked frustrated at times.

The 19-year-old captain will need to increase his scoring output if the Russians are to win gold or silver this year; he refused to speak with the media after Russia’s narrow victory over Switzerland and drew some post-game rebukes by reporters.

Mikhail Grigorenko (1-4=5, +4) will also need to find the back of the net to ease Kucharov’s scoring burden and improve a power play that ranks sixth of 10 teams. Defenseman Albert Yarullin has three of the team’s five power play goals, while 19-year-old Tampa Bay prospect Nikita Nesterov (0-3=3, +2) – one of only two returning defensemen from last year’s silver medal-winning team – has been very good, though he’s slightly off last year’s pace of two goals, five points and a plus-seven rating. The Russians’ key strength is in goal, where Andrei Vasilevski and Andrei Makarov have formed the tournament’s strongest duo.

Vasilevski, a Tampa Bay first rounder who posted a 41-save shutout against Germany and stopped 73 of 75 shots before allowing three against Switzerland, is consistent and mobile and will likely be called upon in the tournament’s final two games after proving to be a rock in net in the last two World Junior Championships. The Russians have operated at a .952 save percentage through the tournament thus far, just decimal points behind John Gibson and the Americans.

If they don’t feel the same home pressure they might have felt against Switzerland, raise the efficiency of their power play and gain more production from Yakupov and Grigorenko, Thursday morning’s game won’t be the last game they win this tournament.

Prediction: Russia 4, Sweden 2