Face-off in Montreal: Last year Canada beat Sweden 5-2 in the semi-finals. Photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
Who’ll claim gold, Canada or Sweden?
As KISS likes to say: “You wanted the best, you got the best!” Canada and Sweden, who won their preliminary round groups, deserve to be facing off for gold.
Every World Junior final in the 2010’s has been a classic, and Friday’s 20:00 showdown at KeyBank Center should be no different.
The Canadians, who settled for silver last year in Montreal in a 5-4 shootout loss to the U.S., are questing for their first gold medal since 2015. The motherland of hockey has cruised through the playoffs with an 8-2 quarter-final demolition of Switzerland and a 7-2 semi-final romp over the Czechs.
“It’s where we wanted to be heading into it, so it’s nice to have that opportunity,” said Canadian captain Dillon Dube after the semi-final. “We played a good game tonight. We’re building every game. We’re going to be at our best tomorrow and hopefully it works out for us.
The only blemish on Canada’s record so far has been another shootout loss to the U.S., 4-3 in the outdoor game on 29 December at New Era Field. Since 1982, Canada has won a record 16 gold medals at this tournament.
Meanwhile, Sweden is unbeaten at these World Juniors and has only required extra time once, in the 4-3 shootout win over Russia on New Year’s Eve.
“We’re a good team,” said starting goalie Filip Gustavsson, who boasts a 1.77 GAA and 92.3 save percentage in five games. “We’re united.”
On paper, it seems incomprehensible that Sweden, with its surfeit of talent, has only won World Junior gold twice, in 1981 and 2012. It has more silver medals (10) than any other nation except Russia (12, including its Soviet Union and CIS teams). Sweden’s last silver came in a heartbreaking 3-2 overtime loss to archrival Finland – with Rasmus Ristolainen potting the winner – on home ice in Malmo.
The Juniorkronorna, who placed fourth at the last three tournaments, are overdue to forge a new golden legacy. They feel they played their best hockey to date in the 4-2 semi-final victory that ended America’s dream of repeating as champions.
“We played against some good teams like Russia and Czech Republic, but we didn't come up that big in those games, so today we showed how good we are,” Gustavsson said afterwards. “The whole team enjoys playing on the smaller ice. There are more opportunities, more bounces off the boards.”
That last Swedish gold also came on North American ice. Most of the Swedish players were only 12 or 13 years old when Mika Zibanejad scored his dramatic 1-0 overtime winner on Russia at Calgary’s Saddledome on 5 January 2012. Top defenceman Rasmus Dahlin, who leads his team with six assists, an average ice time of 23:43 per game, and a +9 plus-minus rating, was 11.
They say you need your best players to be your best players, and that’s exactly what coach Tomas Monten has gotten. Captain Lias Andersson is second overall in goals (6), and third-time World Junior star Alexander Nylander, the active leader in U20 points (28), is tied with Andersson and Elias Pettersson for the team lead in points (7).
There’s a sense that Nylander, a top prospect for the host Buffalo Sabres, could have even more points if he bears down on his chances. Witness the puck the 19-year-old put through U.S. netminder Joseph Woll in the first period of the semi-final but couldn’t get over the goal line.
The Swedes must bear down against the tournament’s most turbo-charged offense. Canada is tops with 36 goals and is getting contributions throughout the lineup. For instance, Drake Batherson, a 2017 fourth-round pick of the Ottawa Senators, notched a hat trick against the Czechs and is tied with Kieffer Bellows and Filip Zadina for the World Junior lead in goals (7). The line of Jordan Kyrou (3-6-9), Sam Steel (4-4-8) and Dube (2-2-4) has been a consistent threat. But the Swedes can’t hope to win simply by shutting down one line.
“They’re a big team, a fast team, a good team,” Jesper Boqvist said of the Canadians.
And Sweden is best-advised to stay out of the penalty box. Scoring two shorthanded goals against the Americans was a nice bonus, but that doesn’t happen every day. Monten’s penalty-killers have been respectable (84.6 percent), but Canada’s been lethal with the man advantage, converting 13 times on 25 opportunities (56.5 percent). Ultra-mobile power play quarterback Cale Makar is the glamor boy of a rock-solid defence, and leads all blueliners in scoring (3-5-8).
Of the key to Canada’s power play success, Dube said: “I think we’re just keeping it simple. Sometimes you can try and overpass. I think for us right now, we’re trying to get pucks to the net and create simple plays. Obviously, on a man advantage, there’s going to be 2-on-1’s all over the ice, and we’re not trying to force through sticks or anything. We’re just shooting the puck.”
In the big picture, the most glaring statistic is this: in seven tries dating back to 1996, Sweden has never beaten Canada in a World Junior playoff game.
Historically, the Swedes are great front-runners. In fact, they’ve never trailed at this tournament. However, they tend to struggle with coming back. If coach Dominique Ducharme’s group gets the early jump, it bodes well for them. However, if the Swedes get up two or three goals and settle into their confident groove, it will be tough – though far from impossible – for Canada to rally.
The last time Canada faced Sweden in the playoffs illustrated the “far from impossible” part. Plenty of familiar faces participated in the 2017 semi-final. Tim Soderlund fed Joel Eriksson Ek for Sweden’s 1-0 goal, and Nylander sent a nice pass to Carl Grundstrom on the 2-1 goal. Both markers came on the rush, and Canadian starting goalie Connor Ingram was pulled in favor of Carter Hart. But Sweden couldn’t hold on and the Canadians rallied for a 5-2 win.
Hart, who was also anointed as the starter last year, has held on to his job this year and has been essentially just as good as Gustavsson, posting a 1.97 GAA and 91.6 save percentage.
After knocking off the Czechs on Thursday, Hart said: “This win is over with now. It’s time to prepare for the real deal. The thing that makes this win sweeter is if we win tomorrow. That’s the only thing that matters.”
The last time Canada faced Sweden for gold was in 2009 in Ottawa. Cody Hodgson and Jordan Eberle led the host nation with three points apiece in a 5-1 victory over a Swedish team that featured Erik Karlsson and Victor Hedman on defence. That was Canada’s fifth straight gold medal.
In total, Canada has beaten Sweden in three finals (1996, 2008, 2009). Under the old round-robin format, Canada also won gold twice while Sweden took silver (1993, 1994).
It’s hard to argue that the Canadians aren’t favored to win in this situation, especially with a host of Maple Leaf-clad fans cheering them on at KeyBank Center. They’ve been equal to or better than the Swedes in virtually every statistical category.
However, the Swedes may be a little more battle-tested. Through no fault of their own, they had to face two playoff opponents superior to Canada’s in Slovakia and the United States. It’ll be fascinating to see how they respond in the crucial moments on Friday.
To paraphrase KISS once again, it’s time to find out who’s the hottest hockey team in the world.