World Junior Championship Recap: Finland Wins Third Gold in Six Years
Another amazing tournament from the best Under-20 players in the world. The cities of Vancouver and Victoria, British Columbia were blessed with witnessing some of the best talent the game has to offer, and in some of the most exciting games in the tournament’s history. Let’s take a look back at each team’s performance through the tournament.
Denmark Relegated After Rough Group Stage
The Danish knew they were in a tough draw, having to play Canada, Russia, and the Swiss in their group stage. It showed on opening night as Denmark was embarrassed by Canada 14-0, and the team would never recover. The Danes were shutout by Russia the following night, then the Swiss, and Czech Republic, all by 4-0 scores. The Danes just seemed heavily outmatched for the second tournament in a row. The offence was not there, and Mads Sogaard was a target in a shooting range.
Denmark was able to find the back of the net in the relegation series against Kazakhstan, but the Kazakhs had just a little more offence, defeating Denmark 4-3 and 4-0 to send Denmark back to Division 1 for the first time since 2014.
Kazakhstan Receives Unlikely Support, Sticks Around For Another Year
In their first tournament appearance since 2009, Kazakhstan knew they did not want to be a one-hit wonder. The first two games saw the Kazakhs lose 5-0 to Finland, and 8-2 to the US. Slovakia did not make Kazakhstan feel any more welcome, as they beat the Kazakhs 11-2. On New Year’s Eve, the Kazakhs took on Sweden, and despite being brutally outplayed by the eventual group winner, lost respectably, 4-1. The 53 save performance of Kazakhstan netminder Denis Karatayev drew a standing ovation from the Victoria crowd.
The goal song the Kazakhs chose wooed the fans throughout the tournament. The team chose Neil Diamond’s classic, “Sweet Caroline” which always drew a reaction from the fans in attendance.
The fans heard that song a few more times in the relegation series against Denmark, as they avoided relegation after a pair of wins over the Danes. Demid Yeremeyev was outstanding in net, including a shutout in-game two. Artur Gatiyatov was hands-down the team’s MVP, and his eight points in the WJC was tied for second among all skaters.
Overwhelmed Slovakia Fails to Find Any Momentum
Group B was arguably the tougher of the two groups in the tournament, and the Slovaks fell victim to their draw. Things started alright for the team, as they competed hard in their first game against the US, only falling by a 2-1 score. However the next pair of games against Sweden and Finland showed just how outmatched the Slovaks were. The Swedish offence had timely scoring, and their defence limited Slovakia’s scoring chances, and the game against Finland was almost the exact same story. Slovakia’s lone win came against Kazakhstan where the Slovaks put 11 in the back of the net.
Slovakia drew Group A winner Russia, and the Russians showed their firepower early and often. Three goals two minutes apart early in the contest put Slovakia out of the game, and fell to an eighth place finish following the 8-3 loss.
Adam Liska and Martin Fehervary led the offence for Slovakia, with each scoring five points, and Milos Roman leading the team in goals with three in five games.
Outmatched Czech Republic Keeps It Close
The Czech Republic felt like they had a good chance in Group A to finish third with the skill they had on their roster. They started the tournament off with a bang, as David Kvasnicka’s goal in overtime lifted the Czechs over Switzerland. Russia was supposed to come in and dominate the Czechs a couple of days later, but a solid game plan by the Czech defence held Russia’s stars at bay. This feisty mindset was what the Czechs needed to do if they wanted to compete against the best in the tournament. They only fell to the Russians 2-1 thanks to the outstanding play by netminder Lukas Dostal. The Czechs would earn a second win in group play with a 4-0 shutout over Denmark.
The Czechs’ offence was limited during the WJC, and Detroit prospect Filip Zadina was only held to a single assist throughout the tournament. Despite being defencively sound, Czech Republic had zero momentum offencively. This was what the eventual downfall for the Czechs would become. Yet, the most valuable player for the Czech Republic was Dostal. He was magnificent against the Russians and Switzerland. His .957% was best in the tournament, and his 1.25 GAA was second only to Canada’s Mikey DiPietro.
The Czechs drew the Americans in the quarters. Once again, Dostal did everything he could to keep his team in the game, despite the US out-shooting the Czechs 41-19. USA was only up 2-0 in the third, and Kaut Martin, who led the team in scoring, showed Czech Republic was not about to give up. However, it would not be enough, as the Americans would win 3-1.
Canada Fails to Medal for the First Time on Home Ice
Canada came into this tournament looking to be the first team to win consecutive gold medals since they completed the country’s second five-peat back in 2009. Canada throttled Denmark opening night 14-0, but with the exception of that game, and the victory over the Czech Republic, Canada really struggled offencively. They barely squeaked out a win over the Swiss, and they could not solve Russian netminder Pyotr Kochetkov. The power play was horrendous, as the Canadians only had a 16.7% success rate, second worst in the tournament.
Canada played Finland in the quarterfinal, and looked to have played their best game of the tournament. The team played an outstanding game defencively, led by the amazing play by Mikey DiPietro, who held the best the Finns had to offer for 59 minutes, where Canada held a 1-0 lead. Then, by a swift stroke of fate from the Hockey Gods, the puck bounced off Aleski Heponiemi’s leg and through a startled DiPietro to send the game into overtime. During the extra period, Evan Bouchard would draw a penalty while on a breakaway, giving Canada a penalty shot. Any Canadian could take the shot, and coach Tim Hunter chose captain Maxime Comtois, who we learned following the tournament was playing with a separated shoulder. He unfortunately failed to convert, and the game would continue. Just minutes later, Cody Glass sent a pass across to Noah Dobson who had a wide open net, but his stick broke. The Finns came back down the other way, and Toni Untunen’s shot deflected off Glass’ stick and over the shoulder over the shoulder of DiPietro.
This was the 13th time Canada has hosted the WJC dating back to 1978. This was first time Canada failed to reach the podium on home ice.
Sweden Continues to Run the Round Robin, but Continues to Fall When It Matters Most
Sweden has been consistently been a powerhouse in the sport, no matter what level. Their outstanding performances in the WJC are historic, most notably in the group stage. On New Year’s Eve 2006, the Swedes lost to the US in overtime to wrap up the group stage. Since that game, the Swedes have reeled off 48 straight wins in group play, including this year’s excellence. After beating Finland opening night, they waltzed past the Slovaks, before a tough game against the United States. The Swedes went up 4-0 on the Americans, but the US fought their way to tie the game, and send it into overtime. In the sudden death period, Adam Boqvist would end the United States’ attempt of completing the comeback. With the team’s win over Kazakhstan the following night, Sweden won their group for the 12th straight time.
However the Swedes failed to translate group stage success into a medal as they were shocked by an inspired Swiss team in the quarterfinals. In the 12 years of dominance, Sweden has only won a single gold, that being in 2012. However, this is the first year since 2006 that the team failed to make it into the semi-finals.
Samuel Ersson was solid for Sweden in net, going 3-1 with a 2.43 GAA and a .917 SV%. Emil Bemstrom was the head of the offence with six points in five games.
Christian Wohlwend Inspires the Swiss to the Medal Round
If there was a more entertaining coach in the past couple of World Juniors, I would sure like to meet him. Wohlwend is the energetic, and bluntly honestly head coach of Switzerland, and his words of wisdom pushed his team to success in the tournament. The team’s first game was against Canada. Last year, Wohlwend knew how outmatched the Swiss was, saying how he knew Canada was going to walk all over the Swiss. This year, he was more confident in his club, knowing they would be better against the Canadians. After an incredible game from Akira Schmid, the Swiss came oh-so-close from stunning the Canadians, only losing by a single goal. The Swiss made it passed the group stage with their win over Denmark, and met top-seed Sweden in the quarters.
Against the heavily-favoured Swedes, Switzerland relied on Luca Hollenstein, who played masterfully in net, stopping all 32 shots Sweden sent his way. The Swiss came out strong in the first couple periods, as goals from Yannick Bruschweiler and Luca Wyss would be all they needed to upset Sweden, and move onto the semi-final.
Switzerland ran into a hot and confident Finland team, and the Finns’ offencive onslaught was too much for the Swiss, losing 6-1.
Even when the team was set to play for bronze against Russia, Wohlwend was still charismatic, and was quoted in saying “I hope all our players are eager and horny enough to win this game.” Unfortunately, the Swiss had run the tank dry, as the Russians took their ninth bronze medal. This was only the fourth time the Swiss made it to the semis in the tournament, and much of the thanks had to go to the team’s bench boss. Wohlwend’s entertaining interviews and antics on the bench created fans across hockey and social media. It will be interesting to see what the future holds for the Montreal native.
High-Powered Russia Squeaks Third Bronze in Four Years
Russia had plenty of expectations coming into this year’s edition of the WJC. With a team deep with talent, it was fairly apparent why. The team started off with a fairly easy victory over Denmark. However, the team struggled against Czech Republic. After only scoring a 2-1 victory, it looked as if Russia was maybe a little over-confident in themselves. In their third game against the Swiss, it looked like the Russians may have been in trouble, falling behind 3-1 in the second period. However, that seemed to have lit the fire underneath the Russian bench, as they reeled off four straight goals en route to a 7-4 win. The Russian defence played masterfully against Canada, and goaltender Pyotr Kochetkov was impressive in net, stopping 30 of 31 Canadian shots.
The Russians took care of Slovakia in the quarters before meeting with the United States in the semis. In a very tight game, neither defence seemed to fray, despite Russia being down 2-0 halfway through the second. Grigori Denisenko made it a one-goal game, and it looked like Russia was going to use that momentum to tie the game in the third. The US defence had other plans, as they built an iron curtain in front of their net, and Cayden Primeau stood on his head, and the US would win 2-1. Russia would be forced to play for 3rd, and would earn the bronze with a 5-2 victory over the Swiss.
Denisenko was outstanding for Russia. His four goals and five assists put him tied for the tournament lead in scoring with nine points. Kochetkov’s .953 SV% and 1.45 GAA were second and third-best among goaltenders respectively.
United States Comes Oh-So-Close
The US came into this tournament with arguably one of the best teams in recent memory. Jack Hughes, Jason Robertson, Quinn Hughes, the talent the team had is very deep. The offencive firepower was present from the get-go, as Ryan Poehling showed his scoring touch. The St. Cloud State Husky put up eight points in seven games, which was tied for second in the tournament. Alexander Chmelevski and Jason Robertson were also big for the US, each chiming in with seven points. Despite a couple of close wins against teams like Slovakia and Czech Republic, the team was very confident in front of goaltender Cayden Primeau. Primeau was masterful in net for the American. Primeau went 4-1 in the tournament, with a 1.61 GAA and .936 SV%, which was third among goaltenders.
The Americans would outlast Russia and face Finland in the gold medal game. It looked like United States scored first after Oliver Wahlstrom put one passed Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, but the goal was waived off after Alexander Chmelevski was deemed to be in the crease. The Americans would fall behind by two to the Finns, before tying the game with goals from Chmelevski and Josh Norris just over 90 seconds apart. However, it was not meant to be as a late goal from the Finns dashed away any hopes at gold for the US, as the Americans would accept the program’s second silver medal.
Finland Does It As Dramatically As Possible
If you looked at Group B, you probably would not have picked Finland to do that well. If you looked at the quarterfinals, you probably would not have picked Finland to beat Canada. If you looked at the gold medal game, you probably would not have picked Finland to beat the United States, especially since the Americans handled the Finns in the final game of group play.
Finland had it tough in group play, they barely lost to Sweden, but earned wins over Slovakia and Kazakhstan. The Finland offence was fairly spread out in the first four games. However, star forward Eeli Tolvanen was held to a single assist in the group stage, and it was up to Aarne Talvitie and Kaapo Kakko to pick up the slack. When put up against Canada, Finland was shut down for almost the entire game. Yet they continued to fire everything at the Canada net. With just under a minute left, Tolvanen bounced the puck off the side of the net, picked up the loose puck and just fired towards the front of the net. Aleski Heponiemi was driving by the side of the net, and the puck directed off his leg and into the net, tying the game. Then in overtime, Toni Utunen scored his lone goal of the tournament, his lone point for that matter, to send Finland to the semis.
There is no doubt that win does not happen without the performance from Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen. The Sudbury Wolf was amazing in net, keeping Canada away from taking the lead for the majority of the game. He was arguably one of the best goaltender’s in the tournament, going 4-2 in his six games with a 1.80 GAA, and a .932 SV% which was fourth in the tournament.
It seemed like that win over Canada sent Finland’s confidence through the roof, and after an easy victory over upstart Switzerland, the met the United States with the gold on the line. After goals from Jesse Ylonen and Ottoa Latvala put the Finns up two, USA would tie it up just minutes later. With the Americans seeming to have all the momentum, Kakko found a loose puck at the side of the net, and scored with less than 90 seconds left, and Finland would hang on to win their fifth gold medal. For a team that had not medaled since their last win in 2016, it shows that Finland is gold or bust at the World Juniors.
featured photo image credit – Pixabay.com