Another year of the world juniors
author: konstantin kharitonov | sports editor
More puck / ]leafschik1967 via Wikimedia Commons – CMYK
U20 Tournament delivers once again
It was truly the most wonderful time of the year. The IIHF U20 World Junior Hockey Championship has come and gone and, as always, it lived up to the hype.
First off, thank goodness for the good attendance numbers. Last year in Buffalo, an annoying storyline tournament was that no one was actually showing up to the games and each game was extremely empty until the gold medal game. Vancouver this year truly delivered, with every game feeling like a sellout, even when Canada was not playing. Yes, when the tournament is in Canada, the seats will always be filled (except in Toronto and Montreal), but it was nice not having to hear about it this year.
The round robin of the tournament was an interesting one, in that the usual suspects won when they should have and there wasn’t any real upset unlike we have seen in previous years. Canada absolutely decimated Denmark in their opening game, Sweden continued their unprecedented unbeaten streak in the group stage, and Switzerland put up a good fight yet it was not able to win against the Russians, Czechs, or Canada. The US similarly put up a strong fight in their group, with their only loss coming against the aforementioned and unbeaten Swedes. While we did see some good moments, such as Kazakhstani players celebrate scoring a goal against the United States, but each game went pretty much as expected with the top teams remaining on top.
It was fun to see the Canadians lose to Russia in the New Years Eve game and have a harder quarterfinal matchup, especially with talk coming from Canadian sports radio and sports forums advocating for a smaller tournament after the Denmark game.
Whatever the round robin may have lacked was more than made up for in the medal round. Right off the bat, the quarterfinals were some of the most memorable of this decade. In the first match, Switzerland shocked the hockey world and pulled off the giant upset over Sweden, winning the game 2-0 on the back of goaltender Luca Hollenstein. With Sweden out, it continues the thought of the team not being able to get it done in the medal rounds (even though they have one gold medal and three silvers in this decade).
Not to be outdone by the Swiss, Finland decided to have their own upset, even though it is much less shocking. In what was a thrilling game, the Fins met the Canadians and surprisingly outplayed them and earned themselves a 2-1 overtime victory. While Canada scored first, Finland pressed hard and finally beat Canadian goaltender Michael DiPietro in the final minute of the third period. Not yet finished bringing on the heat, right after an unfortunate stick break on the hands of Canadian defenceman Noah Dobson, Finnish forward Toni Utunen scores off an odd man rush, kicking out Canada from the tournament and having the Fins move on to the semifinals.
The other two quarterfinals game were quite standard as things go. The US had a hard fought game against the Czechs, winning 3-1. Russia made short work of the Slovaks, who min my mind have been overtaken by the Swiss in team rankings at the junior level, by a commanding 8-3 victory,
The semi finals brought even more fun, including bringing for our first real controversy of the tournament. The first semifinal game was between the US and Russia, which brought again another classic game. The US went up 2-0 in the first period and didn’t let up, even when the Russians scored a goal back in the 2nd to bring them within 1. A couple of goals called off wouldn’t take away the drive from the Russians but it was not enough and the USA held on to a 2-1 victory.
After the victory, the Russian captain Klim Kostin was visually distraught after the loss and threw his helmet to the ice while receiving best forward on the Russian team award. Right after receiving it, he tossed it away, skating back to his team, wanting to not take any part of the ceremony. The Vancouver faithful proceeded to boo Kostin, and the Russian forward in response yelled back to the crowd with some explicit comments.
While not as memorable as the silver medal toss from Lias Andersson that we saw a year earlier, but still something that Kostin felt need to write an apology for.
“I am no different than any American or Canadian,” Kostin posted on Twitter,. “I wanted to win badly for my teammates, my family and my country. In my disappointment and hurt, I acted poorly.” Because of the loss, the Russian would have to settle playing for the bronze medal.
In the other semi-final , it looked as though the Fins did their homework on the Swiss after seeing their biggest rivals lose in dramatic fashion. Right off the bat, the Fins put on the pressure and never looked back. After the dust settled, the Fins came out with a dominating 6-1 victory. With that, the gold and bronze medal matches are set.
The bronze medal game was a more competitive matchup for the Swiss, but they were not able to pull off the victory, losing to the Russians 5-2. In the game, our fellow hero Kostin made news again, this time plugging his ears during a goal celebration.
The gold medal game was one of the greatest final games we have seen this decade. The US and Finland both desperately wanted to win, with both sides providing chance after chance. The Fins went up by a goal in the first after the US had a goal disallowed, and held onto the lead by adding another halfway through the second. After this goal, however, the US responded with two quick goals to tie the game up. It stayed that way right into late in the third where it look like the game was to be settled in overtime, but potential first overall pick in the 2019 NHL draft Kaapo Kakko had other ideas. Kakko scored late in the third period to put the Fins up 3-2, where they held on to win gold, their third of the decade.
In total, the tournament was much more balanced than what we have seen in recent memory, and it is really looking like that it is a lot harder to win a medal than ever before. That means we will see much more excitement, which can only be a good thing moving forward.