Finns eye shutout special in QF
by Andy Potts|26 MAY 2022
Finnish goalie Jussi Olkinuora could set the long World Championship shut-out streak of modern times in Thursday's game against Slovakia.
photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
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It’s quarter-final time – and there are four great games in store on Thursday. Here’s a look at the big match-ups as we enter the knock-out stage.

Germany vs Czechia (Helsinki 16:20 local time, 15:20 CET)

Once, seeing Germany take second place in a World Championship preliminary group would have been a shock. After all, this year’s result is the best group position the Germans have enjoyed since the current format was adopted in 2012.

However, since then, Germany has gone to an Olympic final and reached the semi-finals in Riga last season. This team is no longer making up the numbers on the international stage and believes it can prolong the Czech medal drought for another year.

Defenceman Korbinian Holzer feels German hockey is reaching a new level, with added attacking flair garnishing an established work ethic.

 “Germany has always been known for having a hard-working team, being really strong and compact through the neutral zone, and strong the defensive zone.

“Now we have the skill to do some damage offensively too.”

That firepower has made Germany the most efficient scorers at the tournament, converting 15.38% of their shots. The power play is none too shabby either, at 34.78%. And the scoring has been shared around, with seven players collecting five or more points in the group stage.

Czechia, meanwhile, has had an uneven tournament. There were early struggles, including a first-ever defeat by Austria. Later, though, David Pastrnak spearheaded a clutch of late arrivals and helped to get Kari Jalonen’s team back on track.

However, Tuesday’s 0-3 loss to Finland sounded a warning to the Czechs – one heeded by defenceman Jan Scotka.

“We didn’t play that well, and if we play like this in the quarter finals it won’t be enough against any opponent,” he said. “The quarter final is the most important game of the tournament. If you win, you are in the semi-finals and anything can happen. It’s the difference between success and failure.”

Fellow blue-liner Michal Kempny is staying upbeat on the road to Helsinki. “It’s all about winning,” he said. “We’re gonna to win the game, we’re going to get ready and prepare, I can’t wait. It’s going to be exciting.”

Sweden vs Canada (Tampere, 16:20 local time, 15:20 CET, 9:20am ET)

This is the match-up that leaps off the page. Defending champion Canada might not have been at its imperious best in the group stage, but as we saw a year ago the Canadians are more than capable of raising their game at the sharp end of a tournament.

Sweden, meanwhile, is undergoing a spot of rehab. Last year’s unprecedented failure to reach the play-offs is all but forgotten after taking second place in Group B, a performance made all the sweeter thanks to a win over Finland. Despite starting the tournament playing three-line hockey, the Swedes rarely seemed troubled. And that light roster early on opened the door for the likes of William Nylander and goalie Linus Ullmark to add serious depth to the line-up ahead of the play-offs.

Not that key defender Rasmus Dahlin is reading too much into events so far in Tampere.

“We’ve been playing good hockey which turns into good confidence,” he said. “But now it’s different hockey, it’s play-off hockey. Small details matter and we’ve got to take our game to the next level to be able to play well enough.”

For Canada, meanwhile, it’s been an uneven tournament so far. As always, there’s a serious offensive threat – and not just against the minnows. Five goals went past both Germany and Slovakia, both of whom moved to the knock-out stage, six went in against Italy and Kazakhstan. However, back-to-back losses against Switzerland and Denmark, the latter getting its first ever win over the Canadians, showed that this team is vulnerable. A 7-1 thrashing of France in the last game promises better to come, but it could take another level to topple the Tre Kronor.

“No matter who we were going to match up against in the quarter finals, we knew we would be getting a tough opponent,” said head coach Claude Julien after the win over France. “We are going to need to be patient against Sweden, but we know we have the character and our players are ready for the challenge.”

Switzerland vs USA (Helsinki, 20:20 local time, 19:20 CET, 1:20pm ET)

After topping Group A, Switzerland can be forgiven for thinking back to 2013. Nine years ago, the Swiss were unbeaten in the preliminary round and went all the way to the gold medal game, securing a first medal since 1953. Since then, the idea of Switzerland leaving with hardware is no longer fanciful.

In Finland, we’ve seen Andres Ambuhl set a World Championship appearance record – 122 games and counting – while Denis Malgin leads the tournament in scoring with 12 (5+7) points from the group stage.
Malgin believes that the key to Swiss success lies in imposing its game on the opposition. “When we move the puck fast we can make it difficult for any opponent,” he said. “That’s what we’re always trying to do. Personally, I have good momentum to take to the quarter-finals, but that’s true for the whole team. We’re ready.”

Team USA, meanwhile, faces a shortage on defence. Injuries to John Merrill and Nick Blankenburg leave the team with just five recognised D-men for the remainder of the tournament. The injuries came immediately after the Americans filled their outstanding vacancies with forwards, giving David Quinn and his coaching staff no wriggle room.

That’s forced some forwards – notably Riley Barber and Sam Lafferty – to take shifts on ‘D’, while captain Seth Jones has been clocking up 30+ minutes in recent games. Forward Adam Gaudette is alert to the defensive responsibilities that affect the whole team.

“We all have to help the D out,” he said. “We need to make sure we’re playing smart, putting pucks in deep, making good changes so they can get off the ice and conserve their energy in the best way possible. I think we figured out a way to do that in the past couple games so we’ll just stick with it and we’ll get better.”

As for the opposition from Group A, Austin Watson was not surprised to see Canada overtaken by Switzerland and Germany. “In the games over there, it was just like when we’re playing Sweden or Finland here,” he said. “Those are games that any team can win depending on who plays better on the night.”

Finland vs Slovakia (Tampere, 20:20 local time, 19:20 CET)

Jussi Olkinuora could set a World Championship record in this game. The Finnish goalie has gone 198 minutes, 27 seconds without allowing a goal since Joel Kellman’s redirect beat him early in the third period of the game against Sweden. Since then, Great Britain, Austria and Czechia have all failed to score on Olkinuora, who could stretch that shutout streak beyond the 237:05 set by fellow Finn Pekka Rinne during the 2015 group stage in Ostrava. Rinne overtook Jan Lasak’s 206:26 for Slovakia in 2004 that set a post-war record.

Up against him, Slovakia has a youthful offence with teen sensation Juraj Slafkovsky in fine form. The 18-year-old, who plays his hockey for TPS in Finland, has 9 (3+6) points in this year’s tournament as his stock continues to soar ahead of the NHL draft. His latest contribution was a goal in the 7-1 thrashing of Denmark that saw Slovakia snatch fourth place in its final group game. Fellow teen, defenceman Simon Nemec, had 1+3 in that one, adding heft to two first-period goals from the experienced Tomas Tatar.

For 22-year-old centre Milos Roman, the team’s youth is no obstacle against seasoned international opposition. “We came into the tournament as a young group and a young team, but we wanted to play stick-to-stick and get shots on net,” he said. “We wanted to go for the dirty goals and playing hard. We're playing as one.”

That young team won bronze at the Olympics, but twice lost to Finland along the way. Harri Pesonen – at 33, younger than any of the Slovaks here – remembered those encounters. “I haven’t seen them in this tournament but I’m assuming it’s a lot like how they played in the Olympics,” he said. “It’s a skilled team, a fast team and in the Olympics they had really good team chemistry.

“It’s going to be a really big test for us but eventually you have to beat everyone if you want to go all the way. There are only good teams left, so it’s going to be interesting.”