The last time Sweden and the U.S. faced off against each other at the World Juniors was two years ago in the bronze medal game. Photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
All teams have reason to believe
It could be North America for gold, Europe for gold, or a mix. In this day and age, nothing is certain.
Sweden vs. United States, 4pm ET (22:00 CET)
These two nations have accounted for four of the last eight gold medals, and we know from the senior level they are among the “big six” in the world. This should be a high-octane matchup, the U.S. getting the edge perhaps because of home ice/small ice more than anything.
The Americans have done things in the right order—they’re getting better as the tournament goes along. After hammering Denmark, 9-0, to start, they lost a shocker to Slovakia, 3-2, in which they didn’t look particularly effective. But the outdoor game against Canada got them fired up, and they turned a 3-1 deficit in the third into a 4-3 shootout win, and that started their forward momentum.
Their strongest game was their last, a 4-2 win over Russia in the quarter-finals, and that came on the heels of an up-and-down 5-4 win of the Finns. The U.S. hasn’t been a show of force exactly. They’ve had good and bad moments, but one thing that puts them at the top right now is their uncanny ability to score when it matters. They’ve done this three times now: against Canada, rallying in the third; against Finland, blowing a 3-0 lead but scoring late to win; against Russia, losing two leads but scoring the final goal.
Casey Mittelstadt is the top scorer in the tourney with ten points, but he has had plenty of support, notably from the top goalscorer so far, Kieffer Bellows, and linemate Brady Tkachuk, who has two goals and seven points. The third member of that trio, captain Joey Anderson, has three goals.
The U.S. has been the most disciplined team of the four remaining nations, taking just 15 minor penalties in five games. But their stats don’t tell the story. They’re not the top power-play or penalty-killing team. They’re not necessarily the biggest or fastest. What they have proved is confidence, teamwork, and timing can make the difference. That’s what they’ll need against Sweden.
The Swedes are like machines. You out the players in, and they spit out win after win. They just do. They are a perfect 5-0 so far in Buffalo, and that’s because they do everything well.
In goal, Filip Gustavsson has been the number-one man, and he’s allowed but seven goals in four games for a GAA of 1.71.
On defence, they are anchored by number 8, Rasmus Dahlin, who will almost certainly be the first overall selection at the 2018 NHL Entry Draft. He has six assists, is a +7, and averages nearly 24 minutes of ice time a game.
Like Canada, the offence is spread across the board. Every forward has at least one point, but there are those who have carried the load. Lias Andersson, Elias Pettersson and Alexander Nylander have been particularly impressive, but the supporting cast, top to bottom, is skilled with the puck.
Yes, the Americans are favourites, playing at home, but if the Swedes win, it won’t be an upset. They are just too good, as always.
Canada vs. Czech Republic, 8pm ET (2:00 CET)
If history counts for anything, Canada would be seen as the odds-on favourite. Of the remaining teams, Canada has won 16 gold, the United States four, and the Czechs and Swedes two each. But, of course, that’s not how it’s done.
More recent history shows that Canada pummelled the Czechs 9-0 in a tuneup on 20th December, in London, Ontario, and most will be quick to say the Czechs are a different team now. They’ve added some players; they’re playing with more confidence; they’re a team now.
But the same can be said for Canada. That team on 20th December isn’t as good as the one that will play on 4th January.
Canada has scored more goals than any other team in the tournament—29—and has given up the fewest—8. Those are numbers that do matter. And among the top-10 scorers, only one Canadian name appears—Jordan Kyrou, with seven points—indicating the high-power offence is also distributed among the four lines.
So, the Czechs can’t focus on one player or one line. They have to be aware of every line. One night, Brett Howden is the hero. The next night it’s Drake Batherson or Boris Katchouk or Jonah Gadjovich.
Canada’s power play is also the best in the tournament, humming along at 53% on the strength of ten goals on only 19 chances. Another red flag for the Czechs.
The Czechs have to be the underdogs of the teams remaining. Their road to the semis was much different. Just six days after that bad exhibition loss to Canada, they opened the tournament with a dramatic 6-5 win over Russia. They lost to Sweden and then struggled to beat Belarus, 6-5, and a solid win over Switzerland closed out their round robin.
Whereas Canada’s goaltending has been at least not much of a factor, the play of both Josef Korenar and Jaukb Skarek has been integral to the Czechs’ success. As well, they have specific and particular offensive weapons, and players have emerged from the shadows to establish themselves as elite junior players.
Consider the case for Kristian Reichel, wearing his father’s number 22 and scoring three goals in five games (plus a critical shootout goal). Filip Zadina has five goals in as many games, and Martin Necas is second in overall scoring with nine points. Defenceman Libor Hajek leads all blueliners in the tournament with seven points.
The Czechs haven’t been this deep in a World Junior event since 2005, but you look at what they’ve done here in Buffalo and all of a sudden their place in the semis doesn’t look like such a fluke.
And, considering they just eliminated Finland, playing them shift for shift for 70 minutes before winning in a shootout, the Canadians will have their hands full.