Preliminary Round Report Cards

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Eight teams enter the playoff round now, all with some chance of winning a medal to varying degrees. The IIHF.com’s team of crack writers size up the countries’ performances so far – and look into their crystal ball for what might happen in the coming days.

Canada

The hosts have looked very good but also have shown a few wobbly moments. The 14-0 win against Denmark really doesn’t mean much, and they looked a little vulnerable beating Switzerland 3-2. Their 5-1 win over the Czechs was their most impressive result, and they played variously both their best and worst against Russia, a thrilling but disappointing 2-1 loss.

Grade: A-

Best Player: Owen Tippett might not be leading the team or tournament in scoring, but his play has been sensational. He has been intense, hard on the puck, and effective when in possession of it—and he has done so without incurring a single penalty.

Can Medal If: Canada has never failed to get a medal when it hosts, but this year it will take three excellent games to do so again. They’ll likely have to beat Finland, Sweden, and then either Russia or the United States to won gold. Of course, all of the top teams will have to win some trio of demanding games, but Canada needs to play with emotion and discipline at top speed.

Owen Tippett of Team Canada watches as Maxime Comtois scores the first goal of the game. Photo by Gord Rufh ISN
Owen Tippett of Team Canada watches as Maxime Comtois scores the first goal of the game. Photo by Gord Rufh ISN

Canada’s Owen Tippett

Czech Republic

The Czechs have played well enough to say they’re playing well (i.e., top eight) but not so well they feel ready to challenge for a medal yet (i.e., top three). They played well in a 2-1 loss to Russia but looked outclassed against Canada in a 5-1 loss. They even had to beat Denmark on the final day to avoid the relegation round. Still, they have the players to do some damage, so take them lightly at your peril.

Grade: B

Best Player: Goaltender Lukas Dostal has been sensational in the three games he’s played. He had the night off for the loss to Canada but was excellent against Denmark (4-0 shutout) and Russia.

Can Medal If: Everything has to fall into place for the Czechs to beat the U.S. Dostal has to be at his best. The power play, which has scored only three times in 13 chances, has to capitalize, and the scorers have to score. That means the game summary must show names like Filip Zadina, Martin Necas, and Martin Kaut.

Lukas Dostal
Lukas Dostal
Czech goaltender Lukas Dostal

 

Finland

The Finns can be relatively happy with allowing just seven goals in four games, but coach Jussi Ahokas hasn’t gotten great team performances against top opponents. The vaunted Finnish forwards were blanked for more than 56 minutes in their 2-1 loss to archrival Sweden, and Finland was outshot 39-28 in an undisciplined 4-1 loss to the Americans. That forced Suomi into a quarter-final meeting with host Canada, the defending champs.

Grade: C+

Best Player: World Junior rookie Aarne Talvitie isn’t the biggest name on the Finnish roster, but if consistency and character is what you want out of a captain, the 19-year-old Penn State forward from Espoo has delivered. Playing solid two-way hockey, he’s the only Finn with a point in each game so far.

Can Medal If: Top Finnish forwards have to start producing goals. Talvitie pointed out a downfall versus the U.S.: “I think we couldn’t get right in front of the net in the prime spots where we hoped we would have gotten.” It’s not acceptable that Eeli Tolvanen, Kaapo Kakko, and Rasmus Kupari have combined for just one goal (Kakko’s, against Kazakhstan). After looking vulnerable at times against the U.S., goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen needs to shut the door against Canada, or his nation will go home empty handed for the third straight year.

Dec 27, 2018; Victoria, British Columbia, CAN; Finland forward Aarne Talvitie (25) celebrates his goal against Kazakhstan goaltender Demid Yeremeyev (30) (not pictured)during the first period at Save on Foods Memorial Arena. Mandatory Credit: Simon Fearn, Island Sports News
Dec 27, 2018; Victoria, British Columbia, CAN; Finland forward Aarne Talvitie (25) celebrates his goal against Kazakhstan goaltender Demid Yeremeyev (30) (not pictured)during the first period at Save on Foods Memorial Arena. Mandatory Credit: Simon Fearn, Island Sports News

Finnish captain Aarne Talvitie.

Russia

The Russians are always the Russians. In their first game, a modest 4-0 win over Denmark, they looked disorganized. The Swiss had a good chance to beat them, and they looked only so-so against the Czechs. You’d swear this wasn’t going to be their year. And then they beat Canada impressively and now have to be considered gold-medal favourites!

Grade: A

Best Player: Strange as it seems, the Russians have played more like a team and less like a collection of talented individuals this year, but surely Pavel Shen’s amazing goal Monday against Canada merits special notice. Shen has great speed and great hands and has shown he can figure in a game’s result.

Can Medal If: Russia has a good quarter-finals matchup, against Slovakia, after which they probably would face the United States. It would seem a bronze is a given and a higher medal a good possibility, but it won’t be an easy road. Still, if they can score by committee and use their potent speed, it will be hard for any team to keep up.

Pavel Shen
Pavel Shen

Pavel Shen stood out in Russia’s win over defending champion Canada.

Slovakia

The Slovaks played the right way in their opening 2-1 loss to the U.S., and they came out like hungry wolves in their 11-2 pounding of Kazakhstan to avoid the relegation round. However, there’s just no compelling reason to believe coach Ernest Bokros’s boys can get past the opportunistic Russians, who have allowed six goals, compared to Slovakia’s 14. Slovakia’s penalty kill is the tournament’s second-worst (68.4 percent), and if they allowed two PP goals against the lowly Kazakhs, it’s scary to think about what the Russians (30.77 percent PP conversion) might do.

Grade: C

Best Player: The last time Slovakia finished outside the top eight at this tournament was 2000 (ninth). If ensuring a top-eight finish is your criterion, Adam Ruzicka stands out. The third-time World Junior participant, who plays for the OHL’s Sarnia Sting, got three first-period points, including the eventual game-winner, in the crucial tilt with Kazakhstan. Averaging 17:06 a night, the big-bodied 19-year-old has been a reliable presence.

Can Medal If: The Slovaks have only won two bronze medals in tournament history, and that’s required some bravura performances, from Ladislav Nagy and Jan Lasak in 1999 to Martin Reway and Denis Godla in 2015. This year, it’s offence by committee. When it comes to quarter-final upsets, Jaroslav Janus stood on his head 10 years ago in the 5-3 shocker against the U.S in Ottawa, and Slovak goalie Samuel Hlavaj will need to perform miracles too on Wednesday.

Adam Ruzicka (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)
Adam Ruzicka (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Adam Ruzicka is one of Slovakia’s top players.

Sweden

Coach Tomas Monten’s team stretched Sweden’s preliminary round winning streak to 48 games, even though many thought this year’s roster looked weaker than other recent incarnations. But it hasn’t mattered that there’s no equivalent of Elias Pettersson or Rasmus Dahlin. Through four games, the Swedes have never trailed once. Their only lapse was allowing the Americans to rally from a 4-0 deficit before Adam Boqvist saved them with his 5-4 overtime winner. Bring on the Swiss!

Grade: A

Best Player: Captain Erik Brannstrom has performed like a true pro on a team whose defencemen are its calling card. He leads all Juniorkronorna skaters with an average ice time of 22:25. The top Vegas Golden Knights prospect has been particularly deadly with the man advantage, scoring three power play goals.

Can Medal If: First and foremost, the Swedes must get healthy after missing five skaters due to illness in their group-closing 4-1 win over Kazakhstan. Against higher-calibre opposition, they won’t be able to win with such a short bench. Beyond that, Monten spelled it out: “We have to create speed from the back end. We’ve got to have forwards playing north-south. We have to put pucks deep and make sure we skate and get in the faces of our opponents. Just outwork them.” While the odds of advancing past Switzerland to the semi-finals are strong, the Swedes also need to find that extra level at clutch time that has often betrayed them. Since the IIHF went to the playoff system in 1996, Sweden has won one final (2012) and settled for silver six times (1996, 2008, 2009, 2013, 2014, 2018).

Dec 27, 2018; Victoria, British Columbia, CAN; Sweden defenseman Erik Brannstrom (12) shoots the puck against Slovakia during the third period at Save on Foods Memorial Arena. Mandatory Credit: Simon Fearn, Island Sports News
Dec 27, 2018; Victoria, British Columbia, CAN; Sweden defenseman Erik Brannstrom (12) shoots the puck against Slovakia during the third period at Save on Foods Memorial Arena. Mandatory Credit: Simon Fearn, Island Sports News

No Swedish player got more ice time than captain Erik Brannstrom.

Switzerland

The Swiss have sometimes looked good in a loss and weak in a win, much to the frustration of colourful coach Christian Wohlwend. Nevertheless, their first goal was a spot in the quarter-finals, so it’s mission accomplished so far. Anything more would be a bonus. Their best game was, in some ways, a messy 7-4 loss to the Russians, a game in which they led 2-0 and 3-1 and had the Russians on their heels. They have to take the many good moments from that game and plug it into a 60-minute effort.

Grade: C+

Best Player: Switzerland has scored eleven goals so far, and Philipp Kurashev has five of them. If he scores the team has a chance to win; if he doesn’t, they don’t. He’s that good and that important.

Can Medal If: See above, first and foremost. Kurashev needs to bring his A+ game to the rink against Sweden, and even that might not be enough. The Swiss are outside looking in at the medals, but they do have one thing going for them that they never could have counted on: The Swedes are reeling from a bout of sickness, so if they are down a few players and the Swiss do everything right, an upset is not out of the question. But if Sweden plays like Sweden, the Swiss will fly home after one more game.

Philipp Kurashev
Philipp Kurashev

Philipp Kurashev is Switzerland’s scoring leader.

USA

Special teams have been extra-special for the Americans thus far. They boast a perfect penalty kill (10-for-10) and the tournament’s best power play (6-for-17, 35.2 percent). They’ve had a little touch of the flu too, albeit not to Sweden’s degree, and hopefully that won’t be an issue going forward. Outshooting Finland 39-28 in their 4-1 New Year’s Eve win, the Americans confirmed they’re a well-balanced team prepared to contend. The Czechs will have their hands full in the quarter-finals.

Grade: A

Best Player: Ryan Poehling has done it all at both ends of the ice for coach Mike Hastings. The second-year World Junior forward, who now leads the tournament scoring race (5-3-8), scored a late natural hat trick to send the Americans to overtime and secure a point against high-flying Sweden.

Can Medal If: The Americans must come out ready to compete in each game, which they learned from spotting Sweden a 4-0 lead. Forwards Tyler Madden (3-1-4), Jason Robertson (1-5-6), and Joel Farabee (3-2-5) need to maintain their torrid pace, and defenceman Quinn Hughes (0-2-2) needs to pick his spots in terms of when to pinch or join the rush. This team hasn’t faltered significantly without Jack Hughes, and while his speed and creativity would come in handy, they look like a strong bet with or without him to medal for the fourth consecutive year.

Dec 28, 2018; Victoria, British Columbia, CAN; United States forward Ryan Poehling (11) scores against Sweden goaltender Samuel Ersson (30) during the third period at Save on Foods Memorial Arena. Mandatory Credit: Simon Fearn, Island Sports News
Dec 28, 2018; Victoria, British Columbia, CAN; United States forward Ryan Poehling (11) scores against Sweden goaltender Samuel Ersson (30) during the third period at Save on Foods Memorial Arena. Mandatory Credit: Simon Fearn, Island Sports News

Ryan Poehling has been impressive for Team USA.

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