It's tough to find a single day in the hockey calendar as exciting and full of top quality play as the quarterfinals of the IIHF World Championships. Sure, the Stanley Cup Playoffs provides drama on a nightly basis, and the World Junior tournament kicks into high gear in the semifinals, but getting four back-to-back-to-back-to-back matches in a row that leaves you buzzing is hard to top. For all the valid criticisms about the World Championships' quality during the round robin, once the quarterfinals kick in you're treated to an unprecedented wave of top notch, gut wrenching action. It's too bad that the North American hockey world doesn't tune in to the degree that it should.
So for a third straight year, we're all in with a European Final Four. Canada losing to Slovakia was shocking on a lot of levels, but in a sixty minute contest, coming out of the gate flat and then taking costly penalties late are usually enough to take even the best put together clubs down. Whether you agree that Ryan Getzlaf deserved to be tossed from the game for his kneeing of Juraj Mikus or not, it's tough to argue against the fact that it was definitely knee to knee contact and worthy of a penalty. Even a two minute minor would have given Slovakia the 4-3 lead it needed, the only difference in that scenario would've been Canada getting to have a numerical advantage when they pulled Cam Ward in the final minute to tie it up. For yet another year, it wasn't Canada's tournament after all. The World Championships can be cruel, but in this case, it was pretty fair in how it unfolded.
Slovakia will face the Czech Republic, who yet again came up with their best performance with elimination being the alternative. Sweden carried the play for stretches, and looked to be ready for a full onslaught when they capitalized with a late 2nd period goal by Henrik Zetterberg followed by an early 3rd period goal from his Red Wings teammate Jonathan Ericsson. But the Czechs rebounded with incredible resolve after that shocking turn of events, thwarting any perceived momentum shifts with a strong third period in which they were rewarded with some late heroics of their own. Milan Michalek, who I called out as a player the Czechs needed to produce to move on in the preview, made a great play coming off the boards that was similar to Zetterberg's goal in how it unfolded to win it for the Czechs in the third. Your new top three in the World Rankings will be between the Czechs, Finland and Russia as a result.
Russia had the easiest task in the quarterfinals, but they were up against a Norwegian team that were playing probably the best hockey we've ever seen from that country at this tournament. A 2-0 first period lead evaporated but Russia never panicked, carrying the play and getting a soft goal to open the third period off the stick of tournament standout Alexei Yemelin. The Russians outhsot Norway 32-12 over the last forty, clearly showing their superiority in getting goals from players throughout their lineup (Ovechkin, Popov, Yemelin, Zherdev and Nikulin).
And then there was that Finland-USA game. Drama in hockey doesn't play out much better than this game did. A player that American coach Scott Gordon unsuccessfully couldn't make into a NHL regular made the difference with two goals, as Jesse Jonesuu found open space in the final ten seconds against a group of American players that probably shouldn't have been on the ice in such a key moment. Finland, who generally has to work incredibly hard for their offence, got a late gift by maintaining pressure and making one smart read from behind the goal to send the arena, city and country into a frenzy. Next up: Russia. Might as well get them out of the way now, right?
After the jump, a quick summary of the placements from 5-46 in this World Championship season:
*The final USA ranking depends on if Slovakia reaches the World Championships Final or not. If Slovakia reaches, the USA will be ranked second, if Slovakia loses to the Czechs on Saturday, USA will remain the 6th seed.
The United Arab Emirates are ranked 47th in the world and were the only nationally ranked program that did not participate in the World Championships program this year. They did, however, win the Challenge Cup of Asia, an IIHF event that does not contribute any world rankings points.