2017 World Juniors Recap and Gold Preview

1489The 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship is set for a fantastic finish, with the United States and Canada ready to square off for gold at 8:00 p.m. tonight in Montréal, Québec.

As always, the tournament provided its fair share of unforgettable moments and big surprises. Let’s run through all the headlines coming out of this year’s World Juniors before diving into the championship match-up between the Americans and host country.

PENGUINS PROSPECT UPDATE

Unlike last year, the Pittsburgh Penguins had some drafted talent performing at the World Juniors. Both of the Penguins’ second round selections from the 2016 NHL Entry Draft were in action this holiday season. In fact, Pittsburgh chose one of those players in large part due to their showing in last year’s WJC.

Filip Gustavsson – Sweden is one of the few teams at the tournament that routinely decides to bring three goalies to the event. Pittsburgh’s 55th overall pick in 2016 was one of them. Gustavsson didn’t see much time in the crease with Felix Sandström grabbing a firm hold of the No. 1 spot. But in one game, Gustavsson made 36 saves against the Czech Republic to seal Sweden’s 40th-consecutive preliminary round win at the World Juniors.

Kasper Björkqvist – While Finland disappointed, the Penguins’ 61st overall pick in 2016 did just fine. He scored a goal and an assist in six games. Björkqvist was a star for Finland when they won gold a year ago, turning him from unheralded, undrafted prospect to Pittsburgh property come the next summer

DASHING DANES

Denmark was by far the biggest surprise of the tournament, finishing second in Group A by the end of preliminary round play. The Danes shocked the world by beating the defending champion Finland, 3-2, and then followed up that showing by beating the Czech Republic, 3-2. It was the first time ever that Denmark earned two wins in the preliminary round at the WJC. They also had the best penalty kill in the tournament (94.4%), surrendering only one power play goal.

danes-and-finnsUnfortunately for Denmark, the prize for finishing second in their group meant they had to take on Russia, the third-place squad from a stacked Group B. Russia easily dispatched of the
Danes, ending their Cinderella run prematurely, but their strong play in the group stage secured them a fifth place finish overall, by far the best the country has ever done on the international stage.

FINNS FALL FROM GRACE

Finnish fans never got a chance to experience all warm and fuzzy feelings from Denmark’s feel good story because they were busy watching their team make the wrong king of history. Finland had established itself as a volatile player at the World Juniors recently (finishing eighth in 2013, first in 2014, eighth in 2015, and first again in 2016), but it became the first country EVER in the 41-year history of the tournament to go from gold medal-winners to the relegation round the next year.

Luckily for the Suomi, they took care of business in the best-of-three series against Latvia, thus avoiding relegation. Still, a ninth place “finish” is a very disappointing result for a team that was stacked with talent, including a handful of players expected to go in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft this upcoming summer.

TROY TERRY CHANNELS JONATHAN TOEWS

The hip thing to do now is any time someone scores more than one shootout goal in an international game, you have to bring up T.J. Oshie. Or “T.J. Sochi“, as some lunatics who were even lame back in 2014 insist on calling him.

Well, Jonathan Toews did it first.

“The Toews Rule”, which means a player is permitted to shoot an unlimited amount of times after the first few rounds of a shootout, was taken full advantage of by United States forward Troy Terry en route to a semifinal victory over Russia. Terry, who is currently a sophomore at the University of Denver, went three-for-three in the shootout, all of which were true dandies, too.

Terry’s efforts secured he and his mates a spot in the gold medal game tonight, gave the U.S. it’s FIRST EVER elimination round win against Russia, and brought back fond memories of Toews’ heroics back in 2007.

Never forget, Oshie missed one in Sochi.

MINNESOTA PROSPECTS RUN WILD

The World Juniors isn’t just fun when you keep track of the game results, it’s easy to get caught up in each NHL club’s prospects and see who’s separating themselves as the cream of the crop. The Philadelphia Flyers had the most prospects in the event with nine total. The Ottawa Senators can’t help but be pleased with the excellent play of top prospects like Thomas Chabot (Canada) and Colin White (U.S.). However, nobody can be as happy as the Minnesota Wild and their fans should be with their future stars.

The Wild have only three prospects in the event, but they have racked up 27 points before the bronze and gold medal games were . That’s a higher total than any other NHL club, and once again, they have only THREE PLAYERS doing that work.

Minnesota’s front office has to be drooling over the three young men that have thrust themselves into the spotlight with such authority: Swedish captain Joel Eriksson Ek (6G-3A), United States big man Jordan Greenway (3G-4A), and Russian captain Kirill Kaprizov (8G-3A). Speaking of Kaprizov…

KAPRIZOV RUNS AWAY WITH SCORING LEAD

Russia’s Kirill Kaprizov was taken in the second round, 50th overall in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft by Minnesota, turning few heads in the process. Everyone knew he had skill. The concern was whether or not his lack of size lent itself to a North American game, and if he really wanted it enough. All the Russian dynamo did at this World Juniors was put a seemingly never-ending stream of pucks into the back of nets. All of this happening on North American rink dimensions, too.

Kaprizov posted eight goals through the first six games of the tournament, and later added another during the bronze medal game (an ongoing game as of this writing). It’s safe to say that he’ll end up with the most goals when this WJC is all said and done, and he’s likely made a lot of fans in the State of Hockey very, very excited for the future.

SWEDEN GOES HOME EARLY… AGAIN

Canadian coach Dominique Ducharme made some big time waves ahead of his team’s semifinal showdown with Sweden with a pretty striking quote no matter which team you were rooting for going into that night.

“They’re a good team,” he said. “They showed in the last 10 years that they’re really good in the first round but they have ways to lose when things get tougher.”

Cue big-eyed, blushing emoji. Wow.

Ducharme is referencing Sweden’s impeccable preliminary round record, but inability to turn it into success with medals on the line. We mentioned before that the swedes have won 40-straight round robin games, but in that time, they’ve only capture gold once.

Sweden’s head coach Thomas Montén did a good job ignoring Ducharme’s comments in front of the media, but he and his team did little to prove the Canadian bench boss wrong. After going up 2-1 against Canada and forcing a goaltender switch just eight minutes into the game, Sweden allowed four unanswered goals and found themselves outside the gold medal picture once again.

In terms of raw talent, Canada vs. Sweden may have really been a final-worthy match-up played one round too early, but the result still leaves the latter hungry for elusive World Junior success.

 

800_world-juniors

GOLD MEDAL GAME – PREVIEW

The United States and Canada meet in the World Junior Final for the first time since 2010, when the two teams put on an unforgettable show that ended with the U.S. atop the podium with an overtime victory. It was called then, and often times still today, “the most exciting game ever played“.

The U.S. got the better of their Canadian counterparts in their traditional New Year’s Eve clash, perhaps the only time all tournament that Canada did not look up to snuff. The Americans waltzed away with a 3-1 win, with Canada hardly challenging at any point despite the close score.

Even though the U.S. finished first in Group B an is undefeated to this point, they don’t dominate in any one area of the game. They’re fifth out of 10 teams in goals for (24), the second-most penalized team but sixth-best penalty killers, and they don’t have one offensive player who’s shown he can dominate shift after shift after shift. What they do have though, is a very active and balanced scoring attack from up and down the roster. Four Americans have produced at a point-a-game pace or better, and Jeremy Bracco (five points in six games) isn’t far off.

Tyler Parsons has been a rock in net for the U.S., as well. Last year’s starting goalie for the Memorial Cup Champion London Knights has come up with big saves at key moments, and has a 1.92 goals against average. Canada has a nice response to Parsons in net, though, in the form of Carter Hart. Hart came in late in the semifinal against Sweden, but let in nary a goal and won player of the game honors. He has a .929 save percentage and 1.75 goals against average.

While captain Dylan Strome has been consistent through every game for Canada (10 points in six games), the real threat to the U.S. might be on the fourth line, if you can really call it that.

In Canada’s two elimination games, its fourth line of Mitchell Stephens, Anthony Cirelli and Dillon Dubé has been its best line. Both Stephens and Cirelli are producing at a point-a-game rate, Cirelli is a maven in the face-off circle, and that line consistently brings more energy to the ice (in front of a home crowd, mind you) than perhaps any other three-man unit in the tournament.

Don’t sleep on Canadian defenseman Thomas Chabot to be a difference-maker in this game, either. The smooth-skating rearguard, drafted in the 2015 first round by Ottawa, has eight points (3G-5A) in Canada’s six games, and has been every bit as dominant as that stat line suggests.

At the end of the day, these are two absurdly even-matched teams. Canada has arguably the greater talent pool on its roster, but the U.S. has been rolling unlike anyone else in the tournament. Maybe Canada wins gold again with the tournament taking place on home soil, or maybe the United States does what Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins David Warsofsky and Danny Kristo did seven years ago and beat the Canadians on their own turf for World Junior supremacy.

You’re gonna want to tune in. American audiences can watch on NHL Network. Puck drop expected at 8:07 p.m. tonight.

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