Get ready for semi-finals magic
by Lucas Aykroyd|05 MAY 2021
Russia's Prokhor Poltapov (#13) and Matvei Michkov (#17) pursue Finland's Sami Paivaranta (#13) during the 4-3 Finnish shootout win in Group B play at the 2021 U18 Worlds.
photo: Chris Tanouye / HHOF-IIHF Images
We’re coming down to the wire at the 2021 IIHF U18 Ice Hockey World Championship. Questions abound as we gear up for Wednesday’s semi-finals in Frisco, Texas.

Who will emerge as heroes? Will Sweden get a chance to defend its crown from the last tournament in 2019? And will other nations advance to the final in a bid to end their gold medal droughts? Russia last triumphed in 2007, Canada in 2013, and Finland in 2018. 

Let’s take a closer look at these two exciting matchups. All times are local.

Canada-Sweden (16:00, Frisco)

If you’re an optimistic Canadian fan who believes in omens, check this one out. When the Canadians won their last gold medal in 2013 in Sochi, they demolished the Czechs in the quarter-final and a spectacular underage forward named Connor paced the attack. Well, the same thing happened here in Texas on Monday.

However, ahead of the semi-final showdown with Sweden, here’s another key to consider. Whether you’re talking about Connor McDavid’s hat trick in a 6-0 win or Connor Bedard’s two goals and three assists in a 10-3 romp, Canada’s exceptional depth means not having to rely on one wunderkind.

In 2013, a 16-year-old McDavid won the scoring title with 14 points, but was held pointless when Canada beat Finland 3-1 in the semi-finals and the U.S. 3-2 in the gold medal game. On Wednesday, of course it’ll be nice for Canadian coach Dave Barr if the 15-year-old Bedard (3+6=9) keeps making magic alongside assistant captains Mason McTavish (5+5=10) and Logan Stankhoven (3+4=7). But it’s not essential.
Barr boasts 11 Canadian skaters in total who have registered four or more points at these U18 Worlds, including defencemen Olen Zellweger (1+6=7), Corson Ceulemans (1+5=6), and Brandt Clarke (2+3=5). It’s the epitome of a balanced attack. Canada has umpteen ways to prevail.

Sweden, conversely, has just four skaters with four or more points. There is zero chance that the Smakronorna will aim to play run-and-gun with Canada after suffering a 12-1 defeat – the worst margin in their U18 history – during the group stage.

Even after leading scorers Fabian Lysell (3+4=7) and Isak Rosen (4+2=6) shone in the 5-2 quarter-final win that ended the U.S.’s 16-year medal streak, coach Anders Eriksen’s team will likely have a hard time keeping up with Canada, either 5-on-5 or on the power play. Canada’s PP is clicking at 45.8 percent to Sweden’s 31.8 percent. Overall, captain Shane Wright (6+1=7) and his teammates have scored nearly twice as many goals as Sweden (38-21) and have allowed half as many (8-16).

And when it comes to defence, talk about efficiency: Canada has never trailed in this tournament. It’s asking an awful lot of top Swedish goalie Carl Lindbom and defenceman Simon Edvinsson to lead the way in withstanding Canada’s relentless pressure.

“A big part of why we have made it to the semifinals is because we have been playing with the lead,” said Barr. “We always want to get a lead early in the game, just like most teams, and we are doing everything we can to score that first goal.”

Historically, the Canada-Sweden U18 rivalry is actually quite even. Each nation has eight wins apiece, dating back to 2003. However, Canada has iced an above-average roster due to the cancellation of the OHL season and WHL playoffs this year, and it’s paying off with elite two-way hockey. This semi-final should be closer than the group stage game, but a Swedish victory would be an upset.

Finland-Russia (20:00, Frisco)

“Do you suffer from frequent lead changes? Are wild third-period comebacks interfering with your heart rate? Ask your doctor if playing a full 60 minutes is right for you.”

That’s the kind of ad that might have popped up in the Facebook feeds of both Finland and Russia earlier in this tournament. The Russians became the first team in U18 history to rally from a 5-1 deficit and win, edging the U.S. 7-6 in overtime on a goal by captain Nikita Chibrikov (2+8=10). Coach Albert Leshyov’s troops next became the victims of a big comeback when Finland, trailing 3-1 in the second period, pulled off a 4-3 win as Verner Miettinen and Ville Koivunen scored in the shootout.

For the Finns, lead changes wreaked even more havoc – fun for the fans, hard on the coaches – as they rallied past the Czechs 6-5 in the final minute and then fell 5-4 to the U.S. in overtime. The question is whether Suomi has found an even keel after its tough 2-0 quarter-final ousting of Switzerland.

“For our coaching staff, winning the quarter-final was more like just a relief,” said Finnish coach Petri Karjalainen. “I can only imagine what goes through the players’ minds. I think overall it was good [in retrospect] that we lost the game against the States. We were not high on ourselves. We were not perfect. But this was an experience that they also needed. I think we are much more relaxed, much more ready to play the next game.”
The Russians seem to have hit their groove. They haven’t been seriously challenged in their last three games, except when Belarus cut the deficit to 3-2 during Russia’s 5-2 quarter-final victory.

Tournament scoring leader Matvei Michkov (10+2=12) has surpassed already-high expectations. The 16-year-old ace is just one member of a cast of snipers that includes second-place leader Danila Yurov (4+7=11), Fyodor Svechkov (4+4=8), and Ivan Miroshnichenko (4+2=6). They have that lethal Russian ability to score against the flow of play, given the slightest opportunity.

Finland’s top trio of Samu Tuomaala (5+5=10), Ville Koivunen (4+5=9), and captain Samu Salminen (5+2=7) is a threat every time it hits the ice. Defenceman Aleksi Heimosalmi (2+4=6) is marvelous when he activates. But up and down the lineup, the Russians are more dangerous.

The key lesson for Finland from the quarter-final has to be patience. The Russians will punish any Finnish defensive lapses or attempts to “cheat the game” in ways that Switzerland did not.

Special teams are trending somewhat in Russia’s favour. Yes, Finland’s power play, sitting at 31 percent, has been a game-changer since the Czech comeback, but notably, it was blanked versus the Americans. Also, the Russians – 38.8 percent with the man advantage – have not allowed a power play goal since surrendering three to the U.S. in their opener.

We’ll give a slight edge to Russia in what should be an intense affair. It could all boil down to whether Russian goalie Sergei Ivanov (1.71 GAA, 94.4 save percentage) or his Finnish counterpart Aku Koskenvuo (3.18 GAA, 89.7 save percentage) has a better night.