It may be presumptuous to word it quite like this, but with the dust settled on the final preliminary round games, the Atlantic Ocean seems to be a fitting divider between the playoff brackets. On one side, you have Sweden, Finland, and Russia battling for a spot in the final, three model European programs who develop a majority of their own players in their own junior leagues. On the other side, it's the North American model largely at work, with Canada and the United States obviously present, but also the European nation of Switzerland. The Swiss do develop a majority of their own players, but a lot of their top talent has left the country in recent years to further their hockey devleopment on North American ice. In that light, perhaps it's not a surprise that they've made the quarterfinals the past two years with the tournament on the smaller ice surface. It might be a bit of exaggeration on my part, but two of the team's top forwards (captain Nino Niederreiter and Sven Bartschi) and two of the team's top defensemen (Dario Truttmann and Dominik Schlumpf) are in the CHL system, while players like Ryan McGregor and Reto Schappi are apparently seeking NCAA scholarships for next year.
For the Swiss, their second straight appearance in the U20 quarterfinals gives credence to the belief that they've surpassed both the Czechs and Slovaks in recent years in terms of junior development, as they will now move ahead of both countries in ranking at both the U18 and U20 levels, a solid sixth place overall. The Slovaks haven't been able to beat them the past two years at the U20 level, though the competition has been pretty even, while the Czechs haven't even had a shot to prove themselves against them, so maybe that sixth place showing is a bit overdone, but it gives you an idea of how they compare. Canada handled the Czechs quite easily, but the Americans had trouble scoring on Benjamin Conz (stopped 40 of 42 shots), so Conz could be a factor in their quarterfinal matchup today. Last year, Canada peppered Conz in both matchups, although both games were on the second game in two nights for Conz, in which he had to be heroic the day before with upwards of 50+ saves. Conz should be well rested for this battle with the Canadians, so we'll see just how heroic Conz can be at this tournament.
Barring another Conz miracle, we should see a Canada-USA matchup in the semifinals this year. Canadian fans will get a treat, having seen their team take on all their top international rivals in the tournament (outside of Finland, which is still a possibility) for a change, while last year they only played the Americans twice, seeing none of their traditional European rivals. Sweden played the spoiler role on New Year's Eve this year, but were full marks in their win, outplaying the Canadians for large stretches while Canada was the beneficiary of a couple of lucky bounces to stay in the game (Curtis Hamilton's last second goal in the first period being the most fortunate). It's tough to know if we've seen Canada's top game yet, but they'll definitely have to show it in the next two days in order to just make it back to the gold medal game. Brayden Schenn has stepped up into the role of offensive superstar this year for Canada, while Jared Cowen has become the team's defensive anchor. The goaltending remains the biggest issue, with Canada facing a potential change of plans since starter Olivier Roy hasn't produced a confidence inspiring game to date, although goaltending wasn't the reason for the loss against Sweden.
The Americans are awaiting the Canadians, and now have an idea of what they could be facing if the Swiss pull off the upset. They need the rest, particularly the players that have been injured in the tournament to date: Jason Zucker, Jeremy Morin, and Brock Nelson have all missed time, and defenseman Patrick Wey was hit pretty hard during the final game against the Swiss. It's a luxury they can now take, and they could potentially ice a full lineup come their semifinal on Monday, though Zucker returning could be a reach.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the pond (and bracket), we've got a real interesting setup going as well.
The Russians finally got to their winning ways late in the tournament, as the goal scoring which had gone largely absent from the third period against Canada through the second period against Norway finally arrived in a big way. They put five goals past Norwegian goalie Lars Volden in the third period on Wednesday, and followed up with eight goals against the Czechs on Thursday to secure the final quarterfinal berth. Danil Sobchenko has emerged as the team's top scoring forward, while expected top scorers like Vladamir Tarasenko, Maxim Kitsyn, and Evgeny Kuznetsov finally came around in the final two games. Dmitri Orlov and Yuri Urychev have formed a great top defensive pairing, while the team has decided on Dmitri Shikin as their top goalie after using Igor Bobkov against Canada. Russia had special teams and bad goaltending put them down against Canada, and ran into a hot goalie against Sweden, so they've been dealt their fair share of adversity in the early going. Adjustments have been made, but they may be in for a surprise in the quarterfinals, with a strong Finnish team that may have been the most impressive team in the preliminary rounds.
Ah yes, Finland. They've played amazing defensive hockey to date, allowing only three goals against in regulation time, plus one in overtime to the Americans. Joni Ortio is now in his second world junior, and looks as strong a presence in between the pipes as their is in this tournament. They probably offered up the most dominant performance of the preliminary round, beating Switzerland 4-0 while only allowing fifteen shots against, although their rout of Slovakia (6-0) while allowing only seventeen shots against probably topped that. They were supposed to lack the offensive creativity to compete for a medal, but despite the absence of Mikael Granlund they have gotten great production from Joonas Donskoi, Erik Haula, Teemu Pulkkinen, Julius Junttila, Toni Rajala and Joonas Nattinen. It's an impressive team, and captain Sami Vatanen hasn't had to be an outright star to date, which might be more surprising. Top prospect Joel Armia has been able to fill a smaller role on the team as the veteran players have stepped up, and sixteen year old defensemen Olli Määttä has been given small assignments as well. That might leave draft watchers a little disappointed, but that's usually the path to success at the WJCs, not relying on the draft eligible players (or younger).
Sweden will await the winner, and it won't be an easy opponent for the team which thoroughly disposed of the Group of Death. Nothing surprised me about Sweden's play, per se, except perhaps the offensive output of some of the players. Not unlike Finland, Sweden has gotten contribution throughout their lineup from veteran players like Jesper Fasth, Patrick Cehlin, and Carl Klingberg. Unlike Finland, however, they have managed to have their draft eligible players also shine, with Adam Larsson likely regaining his status as the top prospect for the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, and Richard Rakell stepping up when fellow 2011 eligible forward Gabriel Landeskog went down with a high ankle sprain. Landeskog is likely out for the tournament, but who knows what he might be willing to play through for a gold medal. Robin Lehner had a bit of a stinker against Canada, but was sensational against Russia and is only a mild concern for the semis.
So, who am I picking? At the beginning of the tournament, I had a Russia-Canada final, and since that is still possible I suppose I'll stick to that. I think Russia was definitely the third place team in the Group of Death, but not by an insurmountable stretch. That said, I think Finland and Sweden were the top two teams overall, and I think those two teams stand a good chance of knocking off whichever North American team they face in the final. This tournament has a very European feel to it, unlike last year when it was clear that the Canadian and American teams only had to really worry about Sweden. In the end, I'll probably have the European side of the bracket as slight favourites in both the gold and bronze medal games.
Here are your games tomorrow, I don't quite understand why the Canadian QF is the afternoon game, and the Russia/Finland game is the late game so it's at a horrid hour for that audience. Not to mention that the winner of that Russia/Finland game then has to play the next afternoon on about 18 hours of rest, rather than a full day...