What are the biggest surprises of the tournament so far?
LA: The Czech Republic’s 2-0 win over Russia wasn’t a huge surprise in itself – Czech teams often give Russia a hard time – but the shutout was, especially after the Russians scored five goals on the Americans. The one and only time a Czech team previously blanked Russia at the World Juniors was the 1-0 shootout win in the 2000 gold-medal game. Also, regardless of the circumstances, I knew Tim Stutzle was going to play a lot, but I didn’t expect the German captain to play 31:01 in the 4-3 overtime win over Slovakia last night. He’s got a ways to go before he matches Seth Jones’ 65:06 versus Tampa Bay, but it’s still impressive.
AP: Austrian goalie Sebastian Wraneschitz has been a Purple Heart-winning goalie so far for Austria. He has faced 133 shots in 5 1/2 periods and, yikes, seems to relish the action. And Trevor Zegras is tied for the tournament lead with three goals for the U.S. Not an amazing fact in itself, but consider he had no goals and nine assists in the 2019 U18 and then at last year’s U20 he again had no goals and nine assists. Now we see he can score, too!
AP: Slovakia. Nobody thought much about them coming into the tournament, and for most of their U20 history they have finished in the 6th-8th range. But they gave a tremendous team effort in their first game, a 1-0 win over the Swiss, and then they held the vaunted Canadians at bay for 60 minutes. Last night, they gave a resurrected Germany all it could handle. And both goalies , Simon Latkoczy and Samuel Hlavaj, have been fantastic.
LA: So far, Sweden. The Swedes, riding that 54-game preliminary-round winning streak, did everything they were supposed to do against the Czechs (7-1) and Austrians (4-0), whereas all the other contenders have stumbled or allowed opponents to hang around in games.
Any shifts in the MVP discussions?
LA: Well, if the votes were counted today, Tim Stutzle might get some love. But barring a German run to the final that would be even more miraculous than their run at the 2018 Olympics in Korea, that’s unlikely to materialize. For the Americans, Trevor Zegras and Cole Caufield have had their moments, but also have a lot more to give. Canada’s Dylan Cozens hasn’t hurt his chances of following in Alexis Lafreniere’s footsteps. But it’s too early to tell.
AP: Too early for sure because the MVP usually comes from the gold-medal game or, at the very least, from one of the medallists. But Canadian defenceman Bowen Byram has been pretty special in the first two games and the Alexander Holtz-Lucas Raymond duo on Sweden often look like men playing against boys.
AP: I’ll go back to Slovakia as a starting point, as they seem to have bought in to Robert Petrovicky’s team approach in a really confident way. And the Finns are playing in a way that the other teams should be aware of. They’re super solid but flying under the radar a bit, just the way they like it. And at the low end, much as I love an underdog story, the Austrians are just out of their depths here. Sorry.
LA: I knew the Czechs would clog up the neutral zone against Russia. I didn’t know they’d go into a shot-blocking frenzy that would make John Tortorella envious.
Any unknown players prior to the tournament leaving an impression on the ice?
LA: How can you not admire the battle level of rookie Austrian goalie Sebastian Wraneschitz? The 18-year-old has already faced a whopping 133 shots in two games. It’s not that we haven’t seen this underdog goalie movie before, but when Wraneschitz was pulled with about 11 minutes left in the 11-0 loss to the U.S., he was writhing with pain from cramps. To see him come back and give up just four goals on 65 shots against Sweden was special. This kid played for five different teams in Austria, Sweden, and Finland last year, so clearly he’s willing to go the extra mile for his dream.
AP: I’ll echo Lucas’s sentiments and go with a goalie, since they’re the ones who can most easily make an immediate impression. For me it’s Simon Latkoczy of Slovakia. With no previous IIHF tournament experience he was thrown into the team's first game and not only won but recorded a shutout. That’s moxy!
AP: “Biggest” can mean either most anticipated or most important. I’ll go with most important and say Switzerland-Germany on Wednesday afternoon. I would love to see the Germans advance to the quarter-finals. This was the only team that was forced to deal with covid head on, losing nine players, was humiliated by Canada and scorched by media and fans after, and fought back to beat Slovakia in OT with another depeleted lineup last night. How can you not admire their strength of character? And that starts with coach Tobiias Abstreiter.
LA: It’s hard not to pick Canada-Finland on New Year’s Eve. When you’ve got the two gold-medal nations from 2019 and 2020 and returning champions on both sides, like Finland’s Anton Lundell and Ville Heinola and Canada’s Dylan Cozens and Bowen Byram, this will be a statement game.
Any changes in your predictions for the gold medal winner?
LA: I picked the Russians to squeak by Canada, and the 2-0 loss to the Czechs doesn’t mean that much. Russia often has mediocre preliminary rounds. In 2011, their last gold-medal run, they lost 6-3 to Canada on opening day and 2-0 to Sweden in their second game. So, status quo here.
AP: I started with Canada and will stick with that. They have done what they’ve needed to so far and no other team has played lights out to imply a possible medal charge to overtake the hosts so far.
Give me one upset pick among the rest of the preliminary round games.
AP: I’m not sure there is one in the offing, but if I had to choose I’d take Slovakia over Finland.
LA: Remember when the Emperor in “Return of the Jedi” says, “Everything is proceeding as I have foreseen”? No upsets.