Bring on the quarter-finals!
by Lucas Aykroyd|03 MAY 2021
The Russia-Belarus showdown on Monday is a rematch from the last IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship quarter-finals, where the Russians won 6-0 in Umea, Sweden in 2019.
photo: Chris Tanouye / HHOF-IIHF Images
There’s a classic 1940’s pop song that begins: “The stars at night are big and bright deep in the heart of Texas.” On Monday, from noon to sunset, we’ll find out which stars shine the brightest in the quarter-finals of the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship in Frisco and Plano.

It’s time to preview what’s in store for these four hotly anticipated match-ups. All times are local.

Russia vs. Belarus (12:30, Plano)

Hockey fans and journalists worldwide are passionately interested in whether Matvei Michkov will equal or eclipse the single-tournament goals record (14) shared by Alexander Ovechkin (2002) and Cole Caufield (2019). Russian coach Albert Leshyov is not.

Heading into Monday’s do-or-die game, Michkov, an explosive 16-year-old MHL phenom who could go first overall in the 2023 NHL Draft, leads the tournament in scoring (9+2=11). Russia’s offence as a whole is on fire (27 goals). Captain Nikita Chibrikov (2+8=10), Michkov’s linemate, is also in the hunt for the scoring title, and Danila Yurov (3+6=9) isn’t far behind.
Yet having a deadly, multi-pronged attack is nothing out of the ordinary for Russian teams. Leshyov knows that his team’s ability to clamp down defensively – with just two goals allowed in the last two games – is much more pivotal in terms of its medal hopes. Propitiously, goalie Sergei Ivanov is also among the tournament’s elite (1.62 GAA, 94.6 save percentage).

The Belarusians deserve credit for their memorable performance. Forward Danila Klimovich (6+0=6) has been one of the tournament’s nice surprises, and defenceman Dmitri Kuzmin (1+4=5) beat Michkov to the punch with the first lacrosse-style goal of these U18 Worlds versus Switzerland. Yet tellingly, when facing Group A medal contenders Sweden and Canada, Belarus allowed five goals each time.

The Russians and Belarus play a similar style based on puck movement. But with superior speed and skill, Russia executes better and should advance. The Russians blanked Belarus 6-0 in the 2019 quarter-finals.

Leshyov’s objective is a collective effort that yields post-game quotes similar to Prokhor Poltapov’s verdict after the 11-1 thrashing of the Czech Republic: “Obviously, the most important thing is that our team won. So basically, this is everything that I have to say about this.”

Canada vs. Czech Republic (15:00, Frisco)

The numbers may not tell the full story, but they sure tell us a lot.

Under coach Dave Barr, Canada has the tournament’s highest-scoring team (28), has allowed the fewest goals (five), has the best cumulative goalie stats (1.24 GAA, 94.6 save percentage), has the most effective power play (9-for-22, or 40.9 percent), and has the second-best penalty kill (88.24 percent).

To make a long story short, the Czech Republic sits no higher than seventh in any of those categories. The Czechs, of course, took a beating statistically in their blowout loss to Russia. Rewinding further, they arguably deserved a better fate against both the U.S. (2-1 shootout loss) and Finland (6-5 loss).

Yet considering their highest-scoring player is defenceman David Moravec, whose four points rank him 31st overall, it’s highly unlikely that coach Jakub Petr’s boys will be able to overcome a Canadian team that has never trailed once in Texas and is getting a committed two-way effort.
Eight Canadians have five or more points so far, including all-star defence candidate Corson Ceulemans, Olen Zellweger, and Brandt Clarke. With two goals in Canada’s 5-2 win over Belarus, captain Shane Wright didn’t miss a beat in his return to the top line – after a two-game absence due to injury – with Dylan Guenther and Brennan Othmann.

“As a team, we are really happy with our game and we are improving in areas that really matter,” said Barr.

The Czechs have beaten Canada in two of their last five U18 Worlds meetings (4-3 in 2014, 2-1 in 2018), but even if they put up a good fight, it’ll be a shocker if they do it again on Monday.

Finland vs. Switzerland (17:30, Plano)

Bold prediction: Switzerland will fare a little better on Monday than it did in its last U18 Worlds meeting with Finland, a 12-0 loss in 2019. (OK, maybe that’s not that bold.)

The Finns, admittedly, have had their ups and downs in Texas consistency-wise. Allowing the U.S.’s Ty Gallagher to tie the game with two seconds left before Sasha Pastujov scored the 5-4 overtime winner wasn’t the optimal way to end the preliminary round. Still, the Finns won Group B. Coach Petri Karjalainen’s group has found ways to succeed. They’ll just want to make life a little less exciting against the Swiss, with the template being their 10-0 romp over Germany.
Karjalainen identified his team’s key drawback so far: “On the defensive side of the game, we get a little bit too excited in the heat of the moment. Defensively, we’re a little too active in the D-zone. We’re jumping to loose pucks and we don’t take care of the basic stuff.”

But here’s the thing: even if the Pikkuleijonat don’t play perfect, positionally sound hockey on Monday, the firepower of leading scorers Samu Tuomaala (5+4=9) and Ville Koivunen (4+5=9) will likely put them into the semi-finals anyway. Getting Brad Lambert’s 2021 World Junior experience back in the lineup would just be another nice bonus.

Switzerland’s offence has struggled. Rookie head coach Marcel Jenni, a two-time Olympian, has only gotten six goals out of his boys thus far – and four of those came against ninth-place Latvia. Defenceman Dario Sidler tops the team with three points (0+3=3). Meanwhile, Finland has totalled 24 goals. The last-place Swiss power play (7.14 percent) is up against Finland’s tournament-leading penalty kill (91.6 percent).

Finland has won seven straight U18 Worlds games versus Switzerland, dating back to 2008, and the smart money says Suomi will make it eight straight on Monday.

Sweden vs. United States (20:00, Frisco)

This is more than just a showdown between the defending champions in Sweden and the host team in the United States. It’s also the hardest quarter-final to predict.

Now, getting pounded 12-1 by Canada on Day One does not bode well for Sweden’s championship hopes. (In fact, 6-1 is the worst margin of defeat ever suffered by a gold-medal winner at the U18 Worlds – on two occasions 20 years apart – as Switzerland beat Finland 6-1 in 1999 and the U.S. beat Sweden 6-1 in 2019.) Yet that doesn’t mean the Smakronorna – who won an historic gold in Ornskoldsvik in 2019 on Lucas Raymond’s sudden-death hat trick goal versus Russia – can’t eliminate the Americans.

“They're the defending champs for a reason, obviously,” U.S. head coach Dan Muse said of Sweden. “It’s a team we have respect for. It’s a talented group. There’s a lot of skill there. They play a good team game. You get to this point of the tournament, though, and everybody’s good.”

The young Americans – who have seven 2004-born players on their roster, compared to Sweden’s four – believe they can prevail if they stick to their mantra of playing the right way and focusing on themselves.

Really, these teams are as evenly matched on paper as you could ask for. The U.S. has outscored Sweden 18-16 so far, but both sides have tallied five power play goals. The Swedish PK (81.8 percent) is slightly better than the U.S.’s (76.6 percent), and coach Anders Eriksen’s troops have allowed 14 goals to the U.S.’s 15.
What might turn the tide in America’s favour is the presence of game-changers. Scoring leader Sasha Pastujov (4+3=7) has points in every game and came up big in key situations against both the Czechs and Finns. His linemate Dylan Duke scored two of his three goals in the seesaw 7-6 overtime loss to powerful Russia, and also drew first blood against Finland. You can’t overlook the savvy playmaking of D-man Lane Hutson or goalie Kaidan Mbereko’s Grant Fuhr-like ability to make clutch saves.

The Swedes have gotten contributions from top players in their last two games, from defenceman Simon Edvinsson’s two assists in the 3-1 victory over Switzerland to Simon Robertsson’s two goals in the 7-0 thumping of Latvia. However, it’s harder to gauge their mettle since – apart from the disastrous Canada game – they haven’t been tested by other medal contenders so far.

The U.S., which has won 10 of its last 11 U18 Worlds meetings with Sweden, has one other advantage that Duke mentioned after beating Finland: “It was really fun to play in front of a home crowd and to hear everyone chanting 'USA!' at the end of the game and sing the national anthem on the blue line. It’s a feeling that we’re all going to remember, something we want to feel a couple more times here going forward. We’ll just keep doing our best to keep standing on the blue line and raise the American flag.”