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Friday, 2 January 2015

Time to Crown a World Junior Hockey Champion
#HereWeGo - Playoff Preview

The World Junior Hockey Championships are a staple event for all hockey fans...and many sports fan across the world.  This is an opportunity to see the best future stars of the NHL play on the international scene.  For some fans, it is perhaps a preview of seeing your next draft pick (looking at you Mr. McDavid....welcome to Edmonton unfortunately).  

For 2015 (yes the tournament starts in 2014 but, similar to college football, the tournament is annually named for the year when the champion is crowned), the cities of Toronto and Montreal are serving as hosts.  The attendance numbers have been a bit disappointing so far.  The Toronto/Montreal tandem will also be hosting the 2017 tournament, hopefully under better attendance numbers. I remember when this event was held in Edmonton and Calgary in 2011.  I attended all the games in Edmonton, including the epic Canada - USA showdown on NYE.  The arena was packed for all the games and it was amazing to watch.  This year marks the 39th edition of the tournament and the 11th time Canada has hosted.

One would imagine being the host team would be a positive; however, being the home crowd favorite has not resulted in gold medals.  Of the 38 previous years of this event, only 6 times has the host nation won the championship.  Luckily for Canada fans, the Red and White have been successful 4 of those times (1991, 1995, 2006, 2009).  The other successful years were 1998 (Finland) and the inaugural event in 1974 (Soviet Union).  Canada was the last successful host, can they do it again in 2015?

For those unfamiliar with the format, the tournament welcomes the top 10 teams.  The teams are placed into two pools of 5, with each team playing one another for the round robin.  The top 9 from the previous year's event return.  The bottom team in each pool play a best-of-3 relegation series.  If you win 2 games, you stay in the championship for next year.  Lose and you are relegated to Division IA next year.  The winning team from the Division IA tournament is promoted to the championship the following year.  The host nation does not receive an automatic qualification either.  Finland this year almost suffered the fate of hosting next year's tournament but not participating.  Luckily they won their final game to make the quarterfinals, relieving the stress of the 2016 host committee I am sure.  

The playoff bracket turned out to be quite one-sided this year.  The top half is relatively weak in comparison to the bottom.  Just look at the nations in the top half: Canada, Denmark, Czech Republic, Slovakia.  Canada certainly cannot complain about the draw they have been given.  Now compare this to the teams in the bottom half: Sweden, Finland, USA, Russia.  Yikes!  The past 4 world junior champions are all in this half of the pool, with each of these nations winning once.  In fact, if you include 2010, the USA has 2 titles in the past 5 years.  Whichever of these nations makes the final, they will be battled tested.  The question is can they escape injury free as well?  Need another comparison test for the 2 sides of the bracket?  Just look at the collective IIHF World Rankings of the teams:

Top Half - Canada (4), Czech Republic (5), Slovakia (8), Denmark (15)
Bottom Half - Sweden (1), Finland (2), Russia (3), USA (6)

The combined ranking of all the playoff teams in the bottom half (12) is higher than the ranking of the lowest team in the top half (15).  You cannot have a more staked, one-sided playoff bracket.  Just for fun though, imagine if Canada lost to the USA on NYE.  Canada would be in the bottom half as well, which would have seen the top 4 teams in the world on one side of the bracket.  Lucky for Canada, tough break for USA.

Relegation Round

(5B) Switzerland over (5A) Germany 2-0:  I do not see Switzerland dropping into Division IA.  They are easily the better team in this best-of-3 format and should win both opening games (edit note: as I am doing final editing, Switzerland has just won Game 1 5-2).  The Swiss probably feel a bit robbed out of their playoff spot but things did not go their way on the last day of the round robin.  Had Russia beat the Czech's, Switzerland would be in the playoffs, not down here.  Germany on the other hand is quite familiar with this role.  Last year in Sweden, they faced off against Norway to avoid relegation.  They suffered a shocking 3-0 loss in Game 1 but with their backs against the wall pulled off two wins to stay in the top tier.  In fact, since Germany was promoted back to the top flight in 2012, they have found themselves in the relegation round every year, narrowly avoiding dropping down.  I think luck will run out on them this year however. 

Quarterfinals

(1A) Canada over (4B) Denmark 7-1: Fans across the world have fallen in love with the Cinderella story of Denmark.  They recorded their 1st ever win this year, beating Switzerland (a result that sent the Swiss to the relegation playoff).  They took Russia to a shootout and the Czech Republic to overtime before losing both games.  They have been a highlight of the tournament.  Unfortunately for them, the slipper is about to fall off.  Playing the host Canadian team is going to be another story.  Canada is averaging 5 goals a game, Denmark averages giving up 5 goals a game.  Denmark is averaging just scoring over 2 goals per game, Canada averages giving up 1 goal per game.  The stats are very one-sided here.  Great showing for the Danes to stay promoted and lots to build on for the future but they are not ready to hang with the big boys quite yet. 

(2B) Czech Republic over (3A) Slovakia 4-2:  Did anyone expect to see these two teams playing one another in a quarterfinal?  The Czech's started the tournament with back-to-back 5-2 losses to Sweden and Switzerland.  A tough OT win over Denmark provided slim hope but then they came alive in their final game, dominating Russia and claiming the surprising 2nd place in Pool B.  Slovakia has had an up and down round robin.  An opening 8-0 loss to Canada was followed by a huge 2-1 upset over Finland.  Another shutout loss to the Americans (3-0) was followed by a 5-2 win over Germany to claim 3rd in Pool A.  Based on the streak of L-W-L-W, another loss for the Slovaks should follow.  These are two nations with rich history since they broke into two republic's and offer a true rivalry.

(1B) Sweden over (4A) Finland 6-3: Well this another surprising quarterfinal match-up.  Last year, this was the championship game.  Finland pulled off the upset and took home the gold medal, knocking off the Swedes on their home ice.  These two nations love to dislike one another.  We get another true rival game here.  Sweden is going to have revenge on their mind for last year.  As expected, Sweden dominated their pool games for another year.  They have not lost a pool game since the 2007 tournament (a 2-0 loss to Canada in Leksand, Sweden).  Unfortunately for the Swedes, success in the round robin has not brought success in the medal round.  In the past 8 years since building this winning streak, Sweden only has 1 world championship to show (2012), which includes hosting twice (2007, 2014).  Although they do have 4 runner-up finishes in the same time frame (2008, 2009, 2013, 2014).  Finland's win last year gave them their 3rd ever championship, 1 more than their rivals.  This is going to be a hard-hitting, physical game but the Swede's have been the better team and rarely get knocked out in the quarterfinals.  Expect to see them move on.

(3B) Russia over (2A) USA 4-3 OT: While Sweden has been the most consistent over the round robin, Russia has been just as consistent in picking up medals the past few years.  A gold medal in 2011, followed by a silver and back-to-back bronze medals prove the Russian program is always a medal threat.  The Americans have been up and down the past few years.  Two championships (2010, 2013) show positive signs and a bronze in 2011, but they failed to medal the last time their neighbors to the North hosted (2012) and failed to advance past the QF last year, losing oddly enough to Russia.  Expect a good battle from both of these teams, both coming off tough losses in their final games.  Both teams had a shot at better playoff positions with the USA playing for 1st and Russia playing for 2nd.  Both lost, both moved down one spot and now end up playing one another.  Neither team will enter this game happy with being in this position.  The question will be which team will rebound better?

Semifinals

(1A) Canada over (2B) Czech Republic 5-1: The Czech's should consider themselves lucky they even are in a position for a medal the way they started this tournament.  I cannot see them stopping a red-hot Team Canada though.  The hometown crowd is going to be loud, Red & White all over the place.  This team just seems destined to play in the championship game.  Anything short of at least a finals appearance and this Team Canada will be considered one of the biggest disappointments in recent years.  The draw, the way they are playing, the home ice....everything is in their favor.

(1B) Sweden over (3B) Russia 3-2 OT: This would be a rematch of 2013 and 2014 semi-final, both won by Sweden.  In fact, these two nations are developing quite a rivalry over the past few years.  In 2012, they played in the championship game, the 1-0 OT win for Sweden.  In 2011, en route to Russia winning the title, they again met in the semi-final with the Russians prevailing in double OT.  Since that win, the Russians have been unable to solve the Swedish team however.  The Swedes beat them in the round robin game this year 3-2.  I expect a similar result in Sweden winning another close game.  

2015 World Junior Hockey Championship Final

(1A) Canada over (1B) Sweden 4-2: The dream final everyone wants to see.  Sweden trying to revenge last year's upset final loss to Finland.  Canada trying to find the top of the podium for the first time since 2009.  In fact, Canada hasn't even won a medal since a bronze in 2012.  A two-year non-medal drought is always a concern for Hockey Hungry Canadians!  This Canadian team has the players to end the drought.  With Sam Reinhart, Max Domi and Nick Petan all playing very well right now...add in a (so far) quiet future #1 NHL Draft pick in Conner McDavid and of course #MrSmiles and current captain Curtis Lazar (C is for Curtis remember), it is hard to bet against this team.  Fucale and Comrie have both been playing outstanding as well between the pipes.  The argument can be made that a possible lighter draw towards the final could hurt this team while Sweden will be battle tested against better opposition.  I can see that being true but can also see the Canada wins building huge confidence heading into the final.  Don't sleep on Sweden though.  This is a team who entered the tournament as a co-favorite (with Canada) for a reason.  Oskar Lindblom and William Nylander have provided the offensive onslaught Sweden has needed so far.  If both of these players find their game and can solve the pesky Canada D (and whomever plays in net), Sweden could crush the hearts of many Canadian hockey fans around the world.  Th question mark is going to be between the pipes for Sweden.  Can Linus Soderstrom keep up his level of play through all these games?  He has already seen more ice time than any other goalie in the tournament.  With Team Canada choosing a two goalie system, they could have a rested goalie for the final.  This could be the difference between a gold and silver medal.  Either way, we are sure to have a championship final to remember with these two teams on the ice.  But in the end, it is time for the Maple Leaf to reign supreme on the junior hockey world once again.

Editor's Note:  I forgot to pick the bronze medal game in my original post this morning.  For the record, my bronze medal pick is (3B) Russia over (2B) Czech Republic.  The Russians really seem like to like the bronze medal so why not win it for the 3rd year in a row.