BUFFALO – The IIHF introduced its current playoff format for the U20 in 2003. That is, in previous years eight teams qualified to a quarterfinals round where each team played another in four elimination games. But, starting in ’03, the top team in each of the two groups advanced directly to the semi-finals while the second and third teams played a “quarterfinals” game.
The significance is that if a team earns that bye, it also earns an extra day’s rest and it will be playing a semi-finals game against an opponent that played the night before. For a team in the quarterfinals, it means it has to play another game to win gold, ringing in the new year with a blitz of three pressure-filled elimination games in four nights. History shows the extra game exacts a heavy toll – most of the time.
In 2003, Russia was one such bye team and won gold, while Finland had to play in the quarters and yet still won bronze. Canada, the other bye team, won silver. Two byes, two gold-medal opponents.
In 2004, the two teams that won their respective groups in the Preliminary Round, Canada and the United States, ended up in the gold-medal game, and Finland again won bronze after playing the extra game.
In 2005, a trend emerges good and quickly. Canada and Russia won their respective groups, and the two nations met for gold. In 2006, the exact same thing happened for these two countries. In 2007, guess what happened? Yep, Canada and Russia won their groups. Canada and Russia played for gold.
In 2008, for the first time, a team that played in the quarterfinals won gold. That distinction went to Canada. It finished second in Group A to Sweden, but beat Finland in the quarters, the U.S. in the semis, and Sweden in the finals. Thus, the Americans became the first bye team not to advance to the gold-medal game.
In 2009, Canada and Sweden continued the magical double, first winning byes and later meeting in the final game. In 2010, Canada and Sweden won byes, but this time it was the Swedes who failed to advance after losing to the U.S. in the semi-finals, only the second team to do so.
The lesson is short, sweet, and simple. First, since this current format, only four teams have played in the gold-medal game – Canada, Russia, Sweden, and United States. More incredibly, Canada has been in the gold game every year, while Russia has been its opponent four times and Sweden and the U.S. twice each.
Which brings us to today’s games. History shows Canada will beat Switzerland in the early game and will then play the U.S. in one semi-finals. If that happens, the semis will be a colossal game for both sides. If the Swiss win, it will be a victory without precedent at the U20 level for the nation.
Finland-Russia is a more curious contest. The Russians have not looked strong most of the tournament except in their final Preliminary Round game against the Czechs when they poured it on and avoided the ignominy of the Relegation Round. The winner of this game will take on Sweden in the other semi-finals.
It is still very much possible that the pattern since 2003 will continue and Canada will appear in another gold-medal game against one of the “big three”. But it is equally possible that a new history will be forged in the next few days to see the U.S. win the U20 in consecutive years for the first time; that there will be a gold-medal game without Canada; that a quarterfinals team will win gold for just the third time.
Having to play in the quarterfinals is no guarantee of failure, but it does make life a whole lot tougher as well.