At the IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship, true semi-final upsets, at least within recent memory, are about as few and far between as bench-clearing brawls.
In 2014, David Kase’s overtime winner gave the Czech Republic a stunning 4-3 victory over a Canadian team coached by Kevin Dineen – fresh off an Olympic gold medal with the women’s team in Sochi – and featuring Mathew Barzal, Brayden Point, and Travis Konecny. Nobody had foreseen the Czechs getting a silver medal. Yet in retrospect, nobody should have counted out budding stars like David Pastrnak and Jakub Vrana.
In 2016, the Americans, who boasted a 38-4 goal differential entering the semi-finals, were favored to beat Finland. But it’s no disrespect to 2016 MVP Clayton Keller or 2018 World Junior MVP Casey Mittelstadt to point out that losing 4-2 versus a defence with Miro Heiskanen, Juuso Valimaki, Henri Jokiharju, and Urho Vaakanainen is no great disgrace.
What about this year? Lining up against Russia in Saturday's 15:30 semi-final at Fjallraven Center, could the U.S. be cruising for a bruising again with their tournament-best 36-10 goal differential?
Frankly, it’s hard to envision coach John Wroblewski’s team losing. The U.S., seeking its eighth gold medal in 11 years, made a statement with a 6-0 quarter-final win over Finland.
With great equanimity, the Americans have stuck to their system, an engaging hybrid of old-school Soviet puck possession and traditional North American “pucks to the net” preaching. It really didn’t matter when they went down 1-0 early to Sweden or 2-0 to Russia in the group stage. These kids knew the goals would come. The U.S. defeated Russia 6-3 last Sunday.
Here’s a wild statistic: through five games, U.S. captain Jack Hughes (eight goals) and linemate Cole Caufield (12 goals) have combined for as many or more goals than every other team here except Canada (32).
The smart money says that points-wise, Hughes (16 this year, 28 career) will surpass Nikita Kucherov’s single-tournament record (21) and Alexander Ovechkin’s career record (31), while Caufield (12 goals) will surpass Ovechkin’s single-tournament record for goals (14).
However, could so much offence coming from just two guys be a deficiency?
Wroblewski noted earlier: “Teams are going to key on Cole, and we have to be ready for everybody to contribute on the scoresheet, because it's real tough sledding once a team decides they want to blanket you. It’s tough to put up points.”
At this stage, however, the Americans have achieved more of a balanced attack. Six other U.S. players have two or more goals. And even if the Russians were to shut down Hughes and Caufield at even strength, that’s virtually impossible on the power play. The duo has combined for six of the U.S.’s nine power play goals.
It’s hard to identify an area in which Russia has a clear advantage. This deep into the U18 Worlds, and coming off a 6-0 quarter-final romp over Belarus, it’s amazing that no Russian blueliner has more than one point. Conversely, five Americans – led by Cam York (2+5=7) – have three or more points.
Yevgeni Spirodonov (66.25 percent) and Ilya Nikolayev (59.8 percent) are among 2019’s best faceoff men, but they’re outstripped by overall leader Owen Lindmark (70.8 percent) and runner-up John Beecher (67.21), both of whom Wroblewski has praised for bringing a heavy game.
Rodion Amirov has stepped up with four goals and six points, but captain Vasili Podkolzin, the most highly touted Russian prospect, has been stuck in first gear with just two assists, despite firing 11 shots on net in the quarter-final against Belarus.
Unless the U.S. plays a reckless run-and-gun game and goalie Spencer Knight, whose 1.32 GAA is tops overall, has an off day, it’s hard to see the Russians prevailing as they did in a 8-4 win in Sochi at February’s Five Nations Tournament.
The 19:30 semi-final between Canada and host Sweden holds more potential for drama. The Canadians, hoping for their first gold medal since 2013, dodged a bullet with a 3-1 win over newly promoted Latvia. Nobody foresaw coach Brett Gibson’s boys requiring a Latvian own goal – credited to captain Peyton Krebs – to secure the victory. Still, if that doesn’t provide a wake-up call, nothing will.
During the group stage, the Canadians only played the hallowed “full 60 minutes” in Umea once – in the 11-1 shellacking of Belarus. Spotting Finland a 3-0 lead, allowing Switzerland to rally from a 3-0 lead, and giving the Czechs a 2-0 lead were not in the game plan. There is vulnerability here.
Meanwhile, you can argue that the Swedes have done exactly what you’d expect Swedes to do after the Americans thumped them 6-1 in the opener. En route to four straight wins, they’ve been diligent and protected leads nicely, backed up by strong goaltending from Hugo Alnefelt and Jesper Wallstedt. There’s little to choose between those two and the Canadian duo of Taylor Gauthier and Nolan Maier.
The Swedish offence, currently led by forwards Zion Nybeck and Karl Henriksson (five points) and stud blueliner Philip Broberg (four points), is competent but not exceptionally explosive. Its top-rated penalty kill (88.8 percent) may well nullify second-ranked Canada’s edge on the power play, sparked by gunners like Alex Newhook (eight points) and Brayden Tracey (seven points).
"It's going to be a tough game," said Nybeck. "It's exciting."
So what ultimately could be the difference here? These Swedes – like many of their senior national team brethren before them – play best with the lead. In the games coach Magnus Havelid’s team has won, they’ve only trailed once (1-0 to Latvia, for less than five minutes).
The home crowd may give the Smakronorna a boost, but it is most critical for them to build a solid lead – and prevent Canada from getting the early jump with physical play and quick goals. Otherwise, the dream of winning U18 gold for the first time ever – on home ice! – will be over.
This semi-final could go either way. A score of 3-2 or 5-2 for either side would not be surprising.
If you want U18 semi-final shockers, you must go back to an ancient time when Sidney Crosby had no gold medals and Napster and Friendster were things. Switzerland beating Finland, 4-2, with Mikko Koivu and Kari Lehtonen in 2001? Slovakia edging Russia, 2-1 in a shootout, with Ovechkin and Yevgeni Malkin in 2003? Now those were real upsets.