LAPPEENRANTA – It’s semi-final time at the 2014 IIHF U18 World Championship. A traditional, though recently one-sided, U18 rivalry gets a new chapter as Sweden takes on USA, and defending champions Canada face a surprising Czech Republic team that returns to the medal round for the first time in eight years.
For Sweden, Team USA has been a major obstacle at the U18s. In the 15-year history of the tournament, the Americans have beaten the Swedes in the playoff round six times. The most painful losses for the Swedes came in the 2010-2012 years, when the U.S. beat them 3-1, 4-3 in overtime, and 7-0… all in the gold medal game.
Nevertheless the Swedes are coming into the semis as the tournament’s top scoring team, averaging six goals a game. Leading the charge is forward William Nylander, a player whose draft stock is sure to rise following his performance at this tournament. In five games at the U18s Nylander has put up six points and nine assists to lead the scoring table.
Nylander and second-leading scorer Axel Holmstrom will be the focus for the Americans going into the game. Stopping the opposition’s top players has been the calling card for Team USA, which prides itself on playing strong from the net-out.
“Our goal is always to play tighter and make things tougher for the other team,” said head coach Danton Cole. “We’re in the medal round now and the games get tougher. Hopefully we’ll be ready to battle.”
In the other semi-final we have defending champs Canada in a surprise matchup against the Czech Republic. The Czechs have been perennial underachievers in this tournament since winning bronze in 2006. But there’s just something different about this team, which has proven scorers like Jakub Vrana that have carried the load on offence, while at the back end goaltender Vitek Vanecek has been consistent in not giving up anything easy to the opposition.
As for Canada? Look no further than the defence, beginning with netminder Mason McDonald who has a tournament-best 1.71 GAA. Unlike last year’s tournament that turned into the Connor McDavid show, there is no one scorer for Canada that the team has relied on. As of right now, Jake Virtanen is the leading point getter on the team with three goals and two assists, good for just 19th overall.
But with the scoring depth that the Canadians have (17 players have registered at least one point at the 2014 U18s), it could cause problems for the Czechss who struggled in a 3-0 shutout loss to a team with another deep roster, the USA, in the preliminary round.
But that’s why they play the games, and this year’s tournament in particular has seen its fair share of surprise results. Sweden-USA kicks off at 15:00 EET, with Canada-Czech Republic following up at 19:00.