5 big quarter-final questions
by Lucas Aykroyd|23 MAY 2019
The Swiss celebrated two power play goals in their 9-0 romp over Italy, but will they click with the man advantage versus Canada in the quarter-final after a long drought?
photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
The 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship has been as intriguing and competitive as any tournament in recent memory. Certainly, there have been some shellackings. Yet from the surprising survival of underdog Italy and Great Britain to the strong showings of unheralded Finland and Germany, it was an entertaining preliminary round to follow.

However, now it’s do-or-die time in Bratislava and Kosice. It’s time to separate the pretenders from the contenders. Who will go through on Thursday? Let’s dive into five big quarter-final questions.

1) Is Russia’s defence for real?

Even when Andrei Markov and Sergei Gonchar were in their prime, Russian hockey’s Achilles heel in the 21st century has always been its defencemen. On paper, as usual, this year’s blue line corps looked relatively middle-of-the-road, even with five players who appeared in the NHL this season: Washington’s Dmitri Orlov, Colorado’s Nikita Zadorov, Columbus’s Vladislav Gavrikov, Toronto’s Nikita Zaitsev, and Tampa Bay’s Mikhail Sergyachov.

However, the Russians have conceded a tournament-low seven goals, and every Russian defenceman has a positive plus-minus rating. More impressively yet, five of those seven goals against were not meaningful. They came in games where the Russians had already built an impregnable five-goal lead  – in the 5-2 opening win over Norway and the 7-4 group-closing win over Sweden.

The bizarre giveaways and lazy stick-checking that sometimes burn Russian defencemen have been kept to a minimum. Meanwhile, the multi-zillionaire forwards have backchecked with zeal to help them out, as per coach Ilya Vorobyov’s instructions. 

Could this be a mirage? We’ll find out against the talented young Americans led by Patrick Kane. But right now, this defence group looks as cohesive as any since coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov’s 2012 heyday.

2) Will penalties kill the Czech Republic?

The joyfully hopping Czech fans who have packed Ondrej Nepela Arena with a tournament-high average attendance of 9,023 per game may not want to hear it, but their team is vulnerable. There’s always a baseline of suspicion when a country has exited three years in a row in the quarter-final and has not medaled.

The biggest concern is a lack of discipline. Through seven games, the Czechs have taken a tournament-worst 40 minor penalties, far outdistancing the second-worst team, relegated Austria (32).

It’s nice that each member of the top line with captain Jakub Voracek (3+12=15), Michael Frolik (7+7=14) and Dominik Simon (4+7=11) is within sniffing distance of the scoring title. But no one will care that the Czechs led the preliminary round with 39 goals if their compulsive marching to the sin bin ends their medal hopes against Germany – or even against a bigger opponent in the final four.

Granted, the Germans went just 3-for-23 with the man advantage in Kosice. Yet any team with Leon Draisaitl up front needs to be respected. The 23-year-old Edmonton Oilers star is coming off a three-point performance in the 4-2 win over Finland, and he scored the winner on (you guessed it) the power play.

3) Can Kakko get going again?

Second-guessing Finland’s Kaapo Kakko seems unfair. The 18-year-old TPS Turku wunderkind has enjoyed a great World Championship debut. The power forward got two goals in the 3-1 opening win over Canada and a hat trick in a 4-2 victory over host Slovakia. Kakko leads Finland in scoring with six goals and an assist.

At least right now, he looks more NHL-ready than Jack Hughes, the other contender to be chosen #1 overall in the NHL Draft by the New Jersey Devils. In the preliminary round, Hughes averaged 14:02 per game to Kakko’s 15:35, and was limited to one assist despite having higher-caliber linemates like Jack Eichel and Chris Kreider.

However, on Thursday, Finland isn’t concerned about which New York-area arena Kakko will call home in the future. The Finns need him to score against Sweden on Thursday. He’s enduring a three-game goal drought – blanked, oddly, against three minnows in Great Britain, France and Germany – and has just one goal in his past five games.

With just 22 goals in seven games, coach Jukka Jalonen has limited secondary scoring threats at his disposal. The team’s second highest-scoring forward is Kakko’s linemate, Sakari Manninen (1+5=6). Without a big game from Kakko, the Finns probably will not get a chance to repeat their golden heroics of 2011. He is that critical.

4) Will the Swiss power play awaken versus Canada?

If the last time you ate, drank or bathed was more than a week ago, you’d rightfully be concerned. Scoring on the power play isn’t quite that necessary, but Switzerland hasn’t done it since capitalizing twice in the 4-0 win over now-relegated Austria on 14 May.

Altogether, the Swiss have gone 4-for-35 (11.4 percent) with the man advantage. For the first two goals, you’d have to go all the way back to the opening 9-0 romp over Italy.

That’s a far cry from last year’s silver medal team, which clicked at 11-for-33 (33.3 percent). It’s not satisfactory for a squad that boasts NHL snipers like Nico Hischier and Kevin Fiala up front and Roman Josi on the blue line. The late addition of Nino Niederreiter could help the Swiss power play awaken. Six of his 23 goals this season with Minnesota and Carolina were power play markers.

Any edge would be important, especially versus a Canadian PP that leads the tournament at 10-for-19 (52.6 percent). With two PP goals apiece, Vegas Golden Knights teammates Mark Stone and Jonathan Marchessault have matched the entire output of coach Patrick Fischer’s team so far. Even without suspended leading scorer Anthony Mantha, Canada poses a monumental threat in the quarter-final.

5) Will there be an upset?

At a glance, the four teams with the snazziest goal differences in the preliminary round look most likely to advance. No one would be shocked if the Russians (36-7) beat the Americans (27-15), the Canadians (36-11) beat the Swiss (27-14), the Swedes (41-21) beat the Finns (22-11), and the Czechs (39-14) beat the Germans (18-18).

However, something out of the ordinary often happens at this tournament. For instance, last year, Switzerland edged Finland 3-2 in the quarter-final, even though the Finns (38-11) clearly had a better goal difference than the Swiss (25-19).

It’s that element of the unknown that will keep fans on the edge of their seats in Bratislava and Kosice and around the world on Thursday.