author: konstantin kharitonov | sports editor
Proving again why it’s the greatest tournament
To end a brutal year with a high note and start off a new one in much the same fashion, the World Junior Hockey Championships recently wrapped up and, boy, was it a fantastic tournament. Even though it was plagued with some issues that stemmed back to previous tournaments, the event was entertaining as ever.
First, lets address the elephant in the room. The attendance sucked this year, with every game being almost completely empty. While yes, Buffalo suffered through some horrible weather throughout, with the addition of the Bills making the playoffs, the poor attendance was still very underwhelming. Despite the outdoor game drawing 42,000 and the gold-medal game selling out, this has been a concerning factor.
Now, with that out of the way, let’s get on with the actual on-ice performances. First thing that really blew me away was the play of the Czech Republic’s top line forwards consisting of New York Rangers draft pick Fillip Chytil, Carolina Hurricanes prospect Martin Nečas and future first-rounder Fillip Zadina. From the very first game against the Russians, this line was dynamite, leading the way for offence for the Czechs. For a not deep team, those three really made the Czechs strong, at least up top.
Nečas, in particular, had a very strong performance, always dominant on the puck, seeming to break through defences with ease using his speed. From the opening game, it seemed like he was able to always find an opening to get the puck to his line mates, or was open to receive one for an easy goal.
Thanks to the strong play, the Czechs advanced to the semi finals for the first time since 2005 after beating Finland, who had a pretty decent squad of their own, to face Canada. From there, however, it seemed as all their magic just fizzled out from them, leading to a disappointing 7-2 loss against the Canucks and a 9-3 loss against the United States in the bronze medal game.
On the topic of the US, the defending champions came in with a lot of hype, as they had a considerable amount of returning players mixed in with some up and coming high end talent. The team initially looked more dangerous, especially coming out with a 9-0 demolishment against Denmark.
However, the USA were on the wrong side of the biggest upset of the tournament, losing to Slovakia in heartbreaking fashion. With the Slovaks leading 2-1 late in the third, USA’s Casey Mittelstadt tied the game with 5 minutes to go, though only less than two minutes later, the Slovaks regained the lead, winning 3-2. The US did recover and beat Canada in the outdoor game, the first of its kind in the World Juniors. After defeating the Russians in the quarters, though, Sweden got the best of them in the semis. On the back of two shorthanded goals, the Americans had to settle for a bronze medal after demolishing the Czech in the bronze medal game.
Speaking quickly about the Russians, it has been their most disappointing tournament since the tournament was held here in Saskatchewan seven years ago. After a long medal streak spanning the next seven tournaments, the Russians could not make it out of the quarters. Coming into the tournament, the team surprisingly only had 3 right-shooting players on the entire team. While it is unfair to label that as the cause of not medalling, the players they did bring did not have great tournaments. Andrei Svechnikov, potentially the number two overall pick in the 2018 NHL entry draft, did not have a dominating performance, though he wasn’t surrounded by the best the country as to offer. That was showcased when the team dropped their games against the Czechs and the Swedes, but not without their famous “let’s somehow comeback from this” moments, pulling within one against the Czech Republic after being down 5-2.
And then the two teams dueling for the gold medal; team Sweden and team Canada. Sweden was extremely impressive throughout the whole tournament, extending their unbeaten streak in the round robin to 44 games. In the medal round, the Swedes were just as impressive, especially on the penalty kill. The team was aggressive on the puck, never letting the opponents get set up and had multiple shorthanded chances and even goals. All around, the Swedes dominated their opponents throughout the tournament.
Unfortunately to the Nordics, their great play was not enough to beat the eventual gold medalists, as Canada cements its 17th victory.
How good was Canada you may ask? Well let team Switzerland coach Christian Wohwend explain as he did to the National Post.
“We are expecting a Canada team that dominates us again. They have how many first-rounders? (Eight.) And the rest in the second round? And the one in the fourth round (Victor Mete) who has played the most NHL games so far.”
So, yes, while not the strongest Canadian team ever, one that is still head and shoulders above most of the competition. The round robin was a cakewalk, dominating Slovakia and Denmark, as well as defeating a really solid Finnish team. The outdoor game was a blemish, but the team still finished first in their group. In the medal round the Canadians strolled right through to the gold medal game (not without a quick scare by the Czechs in the first period of the semi final) for a date with the Swedes.
In the gold medal game, it was really the only time that the Canadians were challenged, as the Swedes had applied sustained control throughout. However Canada had their moments, and stroke precisely at the right time when needed. With a 1-1 deadlock in the final 2 mins to play, Tyler Steenbergen tips in a shot from Connor Timmins to score his only goal of the tournament.
That goal went on to be the game winner and Canada is golden once more. For Canada, its another win. For the others, there is always next year. Man, isn’t this tournament fun?