Ask the Experts: Tampere
by Andy Potts & Derek O'Brien|25 MAY 2022
Underdog Austria and host nation Finland both caught the eye for different reasons during the Group B action in Tampere.
photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
There's no such thing as a rest day at a World Championship. Even away from the arena, there's plenty to talk about from this year's group stage. Team Tampere, Derek O'Brien and Andy Potts, run the rule over some of the big stories from Group B.

Let’s start with a traditional question: which players have stood out for you so far?

AP: At the start of the tournament, Marco Kasper was hands-down the player to watch. Just 18 years old, he was trusted with plenty of game time at a new level and did not look out of place. That said, he seemed to slow down a little, perhaps as teams got a proper look at him and found ways to play him. Even so, he can be very satisfied with his first World Championship, and helping Austria stay at this level is no small achievement.

Elsewhere, Rasmus Dahlin is nobody’s idea of an unknown talent. That said, we’ve not really seen him at international level before (his two games at the PyeongChang Olympics were hardly indicative of what the 2018 #1 draft pick has got) and it’s been great fun to see him grow into arguably the best D-man at the championship.

DO’B: Two 21-year-olds have caught my attention that I wasn’t expecting to play dominant roles. The first is Czech winger Matej Blumel. At the start, he was playing on a line with stars David Krejci and Roman Cervenka and scored three goals in the first two games. In fact, that was the only Czech line that was producing. Since the arrival of David Pastrnak, Blumel has been “bumped” to playing with Tomas Hertl and Hynek Zohorna. That change has seemingly ignited Hertl, who was pointless in his first few games. 

The other is Latvian goaltender Arturs Silovs. Pegged as the backup, he twice entered games in relief of Elvis Merzlikins and was perfect. He was also given the start in two big games. In the last game against Sweden, where Latvia needed a win to keep alive its playoff chances, Silovs got the start and he was brilliant, stopping 34 of 35 in a 1-0 loss. In four appearances, he had a goals-against average of 1.22 and a save percentage of 95.24, which puts him among the tournament leaders in both categories.

Which teams have surprised you in the group stage?

AP: It’s hard to look past Austria. Two months ago, they were expecting to play at a lower level. Now, not only have they escaped relegation, they’ve secured sixth place in the group and done so on merit. Roger Bader’s team wasn’t interested in rolling with the punches against the big boys and trying to scrape together the necessary points against the other outsiders: they believed they could get results against anyone and reaped the rewards with a historic victory over the Czechs and a richly deserved point against the USA. Huge credit has to go to the coaching staff here – assembling a PK that ranked fifth across the group stage highlights the extent to which this was a true team effort.

DO’B: I would agree with Austria, if for no other reason than I wouldn’t say that any other team in Group B exceeded expectations. When they found out they would be playing in this World Championship, they loaded up their pre-tournament schedule against tough opponents and the players saw that they could compete with those teams, giving them confidence going in. Even players from Czechia, Finland, Sweden were saying, “We played against them before, they’re not bad.” So it wasn’t even a case of them taking these teams by surprise. 

On the flipside of the coin, do you feel any team has failed to live up to expectations?

AP: On a personal note, Britain’s relegation was a disappointment. However, GB was always at risk, particularly with so much of its goal threat absent due to injury. Hopefully they can use the experience of the last three championships to ensure that we don’t have another 25-year wait for top division hockey this time.

In terms of underperformance, Czechia looked to be in all sorts of trouble before its NHL reinforcements started to arrive. And maybe the Latvians will feel that hard-fought wins over Austria, Norway and Great Britain amounts to less than they hoped for after such an impressive display against Finland at the start of the tournament.

DO’B: Just as not many teams exceeded expectations, no one really played below them either. The four pre-tournament favourites to advance all did, with Latvia knocking on the door but just falling short, which is nothing new either. Maybe Norway would be a bit disappointed with their tournament. Outside of a regulation win over Austria, they didn’t do anything very impressive. Early on, they even blew a late 3-0 lead against Great Britain and had to settle for a shootout win. 

Tampere’s new arena is a big source of local pride. Has the host city lived up to its promise?

AP: It’s the first time since 1965 that Tampere has been the primary World Championship venue – and it’s fair to ask what took so long! There’s been a real sense of occasion in the city and the atmosphere when the host nation plays is electric, belying stereotypes about quiet, unemotional Finns.

And the sense of occasion goes beyond the confines of the impressive new Nokia Arena. From downtown bars to waterfront cafes, there’s been a lively hubbub of hockey chatter in multiple languages as travelling fans – particularly from Latvia, Czechia and Sweden – all played a part in generating a festive atmosphere. We’ve waited a long time to have fans back at major international tournaments and Tampere is hosting quite the party.

DO’B: I’ll add to that, Tampere is big enough to have a venue the size of Nokia Arena but small enough that everything is within walking distance, which is very nice. The arena, fan zone, railway station, and numerous restaurants, pubs and hotels are all a short distance from each other, and you also don’t have to travel far to get out of the city and enjoy some nature on an off day or even the morning of a game day. 

It’s been a busy time keeping track of new arrivals on the rosters, but which new faces have really helped their teams?

AP: The obvious difference-maker so far is David Pastrnak. Prior to his arrival, the Czechs were limping along and seemed to be in danger of missing out on the knock-out stage. It took some time to confirm that the Boston Bruin would join his compatriots here, but his arrival has added much-needed oomph to the Czech offence, banishing fears of an embarrassing early elimination and allowing Czechia’s fans to contemplate an end to that medal drought.

Elsewhere, we may discover that Sweden’s William Nylander becomes a key figure in the final stages. He has all the previous experience of scoring at this level and could be the man to turn a game in the Swede’s favour.

DO’B: Markus Granlund arrived early on and sure ignited the Finland offence, especially the power play with Sakari Manninen and Mikko Lehtonen. As for William Nylander, he only played in two group-stage games for Sweden but had 4 points and, again, bolstered the power play.

I’ll add to that a couple of significant goaltending arrivals, both from the Boston Bruins – Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman. Nothing against Strauss Mann, but Swayman has been a huge upgrade in goal for the USA, especially considering he’s been playing behind a thin, injury-depleted defence.

Can Finland add another gold just a few weeks after the Olympic triumph?

DO’B: They’ve got as good a chance as anybody, but the knockout games are a funny thing. There have been tournaments in the past where the Finns have hardly looked impressive in the group stage and then reeled off three straight wins in do-or-die games – see Bratislava 2019. Including this year’s Olympics, the last time the Finns lost a knockout game in regulation time (Canada beat them in OT in last year’s final) was to Switzerland in the 2018 quarter-finals … after winning their group. 

What does all that mean? They very well might win their last three games here in Tampere and reclaim the gold, but I wouldn’t be looking past Slovakia in the quarter-finals. And if they win that, there’ll be another team in the semis that is fully capable of beating them. But of course, they’re aware of that. 

AP: Long before a puck was dropped here, Finland was firmly in the gold-medal conversation. And nothing of what we’ve seen so far in Tampere changes that. Jukka Jalonen’s roster is different from the one that triumphed in Beijing, but Finnish hockey has a strong identity that enables its players to slot in seamlessly – witness the immediate impact Mikael Granlund made when he jetted in to kick the PP up a notch from his first game.

That said, we’ve also seen Finland beaten by Sweden in a shoot-out and pushed all the way by Latvia before Granlund conjured that late power play goal. And there’s also the weight of history – in eight previous attempts as tournament host, the Finns have never won a medal of any colour at the Worlds. We know the Leijonat can do it, but will the weight of expectation and the possible strain of a more demanding group take a toll in the closing stages?

We've both spoken to coaches and players who tell us that the 'gap' is closing – how true is that, and how much comes from Big 6 nations looking to distract from unimpressive performances against the outsiders?

DO’B: It seems that every year there’s one or two teams in the tournament that does better than expected and this question gets raised. Last year it was Kazakhstan and, to a lesser extent, Great Britain. You also have to take into account how strong some of the teams are that get sent here from the elite countries, who don’t always have their best players available. 

As for “the gap”, that’s the kind of thing that has to be observed over time, not year to year. Over time, Switzerland closed the gap and is now a medal contender, with Germany approaching that territory as well. Every country has a different program and some progress for a while and then spin their wheels for a time or even regress. I don’t think there’s a singular gap but many gaps. 

AP: In Tampere, we’ve seen individual games where underdogs have landed a few blows: Austria against the Czechs, most obviously, also Austria against USA and Latvia’s narrow loss to Finland. You might even make a case for GB’s fightback to take Norway to a shoot-out.

What we’ve not seen is much evidence of the emerging teams maintaining that kind of performance through the whole tournament – or at times even through a whole game. It’s not until nations can pick up points, rather than “plucky” pats on the head, that we can talk about gaps closing. Switzerland and Germany look to be doing this, but I’m not sure we saw anything comparable in Group B.

Who will win the Tampere QFs?

DO’B: You can read above what I said about do-or-die games. Having said that, Finland is the favourite over Slovakia. Sweden against Canada is tougher to call, partly because I haven’t seen much of Canada this year. I’ll say Sweden but we all remember what Canada did last year after an underwhelming group stage. 

AP: I’m fairly confident for Finland against Slovakia. Defensively, the Finns have been a class apart here and while I’m excited to get a look at the young Slovakian forwards in person, I don’t think they’ll have enough to upset the odds. On paper, Sweden-Canada is a tougher call. That said, the Canadians’ results in the group stage have not been anything out of the ordinary so it’s hard to say whether Claude Julien has a genuine contender, or whether we're expecting a tight game because of the history and reputation of the two nations.

Any surprises about the teams that were relegated?

AP: Ultimately, no. Before the tournament started, most would have identified Italy and Great Britain as two teams in serious danger of demotion. And that’s how it played out. Given that these were the teams that scored fewest goals and allowed most, it’s hard to argue with the final standings.

DO’B: Agreed, no. In Tampere, in our respective previews of Austria and Great Britain, we both identified that last game of the group stage as the game that would decide it and I don’t think that was due to any particular brilliance on our part. Almost anybody would have and even the players throughout the tournament referred to it. And, despite some impressive showings by Austria throughout, it did indeed come down to the third period of that game. Similarly, down in Helsinki, if I’d been told ahead of time that Kazakhstan would win its last game to relegate Italy, it wouldn’t have shocked me.