CALGARY – To be purely objective, the quarter-finals represent the most daunting do-or-die scenario at the World Juniors, apart from relegation play. That’s why it’s vital for heroes to step up in the first elimination game.
After all, if you lose in the semi-finals or the final, you still have something to hold on to: the chance to play for a bronze medal, or a silver. But getting defeated in the quarter-finals, if you’re one of the top nations, automatically turns your tournament into a disaster.
You might have had an excellent tournament up to that point – if not quite good enough to get a semi-final bye. Yet unless you’re “just happy to be there”, like Kazakhstan between 1998 and 2000, there’s no way to sugarcoat going out in a quarter-final.
So who are some of the heroes that have saved the day since the IIHF went to the playoff format back in 1996?
Per-Ragnar Bergkvist isn’t a household name today, but in 1996, the 19-year-old Leksand goalie played an integral role in backstopping Sweden to its fifth consecutive World Junior medal (silver). As part of the fourth-longest shutout streak in tournament history (151:38), Bergkvist blanked the Americans 3-0 in the quarter-final on their home ice in Boston. "There were a couple of times when I thought we had beaten him through the legs, the five-hole, but he wound up sitting on the puck," said American head coach Jack Parker afterwards.
Czech forward Radek Matejovski carved out a little slice of IIHF history for himself in 1997 when he scored the decisive goal in the first penalty shootout ever in World Junior playoffs. The Czechs defeated Finland 3-2 to advance.
In 1998, dreams were both realized and crushed in the quarter-finals. The hero for Switzerland was four-time World Junior participant Björn Christen, whose shootout goal provided a 2-1 win over favoured Sweden. That enabled the Swiss to go forward and win their first bronze medal ever. Maxim Afinogenov, meanwhile, sent Canada spiraling into despair when he scored with just 39 seconds left in overtime to give Russia a 2-1 win. The Russians would capture silver behind host Finland, but Canada wound up in eighth place, its all-time worst result.
Another Russian who shone in extra time in a quarter-final was Denis Arkhipov. The future NHLer, who currently plays for the KHL’s Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk, beat Mika Lehto at 7:33 of OT to dethrone the Finns at the 1999 tournament in Winnipeg. “Everything happened very fast,” said Lehto of the 3-2 winning goal. “I couldn’t do much about it.” And subsequent opponents found themselves powerless against the Russians, too, who recorded two more 3-2 victories, including one over host Canada in OT, to take the title.
One of the most brilliant Finnish goaltending performances in World Junior history came from current Boston Bruins star Tuukka Rask in 2006. The Finns had no business winning their quarter-final matchup against archrival Sweden, as they were outshot 53-25. But they did, courtesy of Teemu Laakso’s power play goal with 34 seconds left in OT, and the real hero was Rask, who stopped every shot for a 1-0 shutout. HockeyCanada.ca described the player-of-the-game awards in Vancouver as follows: “The fans chanted ‘Rask! Rask’ as the netminder accepted his award, and even [Swedish forward Johannes] Salomonsson gave him a disbelieving smile and a congratulatory slap.”
Recently, at least one player has found a way to blow our minds with a clutch outing in the quarter-finals each year.
In 2009, it was Slovak goalie Jaroslav Janus almost singlehandedly knocking the favoured Americans out in Ottawa. 2010 saw Nino Niederreiter delighting Swiss fans with his late tying goal and OT winner against Russia. And Yevgeni Kuznetsov was the man of the hour last year in Buffalo against Finland, bringing the eventual champions back from a late 3-1 deficit with a goal, an assist, and the winner in extra time.
Who will come through in spectacular style this year? Stay tuned.