From Barstool’s Lead World Juniors Corespondent
25 games in 8 days. That’s what we’ve seen so far out of the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship. And starting today, there are only 5-6 more games to go. That’s including the relegation round which we’re not really going to talk about here but if Kazakhstan wins today, they’ll be back at the World Juniors next year and Denmark will be relegated to the lower division. If Denmark wins today then the relegation round goes to a game 3 tomorrow. But what we’re really here to talk about right now is the semifinals.
At 4pm EST, we have THE United States of America turning back the clock 39 years to 1980 and facing the Russians with a shot at gold on the line. And then at 8pm EST, we have Switzerland looking to make it to their first ever gold medal game in this tournament and standing in their way is Team Finland, who won in ridiculous fashion on Wednesday night against the Canadians. Two games today setting up for two medal games tomorrow and just like that, we’re down to the final 48 hours of the World Juniors. So let’s cherish these last few remaining games while we still can.
Semifinal Game #1: USA (B2) v Russia (A1) | 4pm EST
Now the first matchup today is a pretty classic matchup at the World Juniors. It’s a matchup that we’re used to seeing and especially so in the elimination rounds. This will be the 20th time that USA and Russia will face each other that the World Juniors. Over the course of those games, USA has a record of 7-12-1, with their overtime win coming in the semifinal shootout in 2017 when…well…you remember.
Now even though the Russians hold the better record head-to-head, USA has won the last 3 matchups between the two teams. They beat the Russians in the quarterfinals last year. They obviously beat the Russians in the 2017 semifinals, and earlier that tournament in the preliminary round. But before then, USA’s last 3 tournaments had all been ended by the Russians. They lost in the quarterfinals in 2014 and 2015. And then they lost in the semifinals in 2017. So if reading comprehension isn’t your thing, let me simplify that for you a little bit. In every tournament from 2014 through today, the tournament has ended for one of these teams at the hands of the other.
- 2014 Quarterfinals: Russia 5 – USA 3
- 2015 Quarterfinals: Russia 3 – USA 2
- 2016 Semifinals: Russia 2 – USA 1
- 2017 Semifinals: USA 4 – Russia 3 (SO)
- 2018 Quarterfinals: USA 4 – Russia 2
Which brings us to today. Now the one thing that really scares me today is that Russia is technically the home team. Which means they will be able to choose which jerseys they wear. I’ve mentioned this before but the US team looks like absolute dog shit when they’re wearing their Olympic jerseys. And considering the last 2 teams USA has knocked Russia out of the tournament they were wearing the 1960 throwback sweaters, it wouldn’t shock me to see the Russians force Team USA to wear blue today. Now I do think that Russia likes to wear their reds but it’ll be interesting to see if they are more confident in their red jerseys than they’re scared about USA wearing their 1960s throwbacks. Guess we’ll just have to wait and see on that one.
But regardless of whichever sweaters Team USA ends up wearing, the one thing I think is truly in their favor today is the fact that they’ll be playing their first game in Vancouver of the tournament. Up until today, they played all their games this tournament in Victoria. Now you’re probably wondering to yourself what Vancouver has to do with anything. The answer is everything. Because Quinn Hughes was the 7th overall draft pick for the Vancouver Canucks in last year’s draft and now he’ll finally have the chance to put on a show in front of his future hometown crowd. And I’m sure that younger brother Jack will be putting on a show as well.
However, this Russian team is dangerous as shit. They completely throttled the Slovakians in the quarterfinals 8-3, a team that USA had to squeak a 1-goal win out of in the first game of the tournament. And they held the Canadians to just 1 goal on New Years Eve. So they put up 8 on Slovakia and held the Canadians to just a single goal. That’s a fucking solid team right there. And it’s not like they have just one player who has completely taken over the show. They have 5 players who have scored at least 5 or more points so far this tournament, and 9 players who have scored at least 4 or more. Team USA has 3 players who have scored 5 or more, and then 5 players who have scored 4 or more. So the Russians are getting more help from more players than the Americans have been so far this tournament, and they’ve been able to shutdown one of the deepest teams offensively in this tournament. I’m not going to get up here and lie to everybody by saying this is an automatic win for Team USA because it’s not.
With that being said–Team USA just needs to make the most out of their opportunities. One of the things that I think they’ve done a great job of the last few games is turning turnovers into goals. Like this Noah Cates goal against the Czech Republic the other night. Jack Hughes steals the puck from the Czechs and just a few seconds later it’s in the back of the net.
If Team USA can make the Russians pay for their mistakes, then they’ll be okay today. But if they don’t end up converting a few turnovers into goals, then it’s going to be difficult to keep up. I think there will be a ton of juice in the building and since it’s such a big major rivalry, they’ll be up to the task.
Semifinal Game #2: Switzerland (A4) v Finland (B3)
Now this is the matchup that nobody saw coming. USA vs Russia, Canada vs Sweden. That’s the way this World Juniors was supposed to shake out once the quarterfinal matchups were determined. But all of a sudden, Switzerland blanks Sweden 2-0 and the Finns pull off a miraculous overtime win against Canada, and now here we are. It’s absolute chaos and–unless you’re Canadian–you should be loving every second of it.
There are a lot of reasons why the Swiss are in the position that they’re in today. This is a group that has worked their asses off over the last year to become a team that compete with the best in the world. Last year they got absolutely smacked by the Canadians 8-2 in the quarterfinals and then this year they only lost 3-2 to Canada in the preliminary round. Going from a 6-goal loss to a 1-goal game doesn’t just happen accidentally. This team has learned and they’ve grown from last year to today. But if there was one singular reason that stands out among the rest, it’s the goaltending. Right now Luca Hollenstein leads the WJC with a .976 sv%. He shut out the Swedes in the quarterfinals, shut out Denmark, and held the Czechs to 2 goals in the opening game of the tournament. He wasn’t in net for the Swiss games against Canada or Russia in the preliminary round but 32 saves on 32 shots against Sweden was one of the best performances for a goalie in World Juniors history. And now Switzerland will have a chance to advance to the gold medal game for the first time in their history. They’ve only medaled once at this tournament before so no matter what, this is a huge moment for them.
As for Finland? Well the only thing that would really worry me about them right now is the Minnesota Vikings effect. When you win a game in such a miraculous manner like they did on Wednesday night, it’s kind of hard to reel back the emotions from that win and focus on the next game. So if they’re still buzzing from the Canada win and aren’t able to fully focus on putting some pucks in against Luca Hollenstein and the Swiss tonight, then they could very easily suffer the same fate as their Swedish neighbors. However…I just think this Finnish team is too deep to not play for Gold tomorrow. I had them in my gold medal game predictions before the tournament even started. They have a great mix of guys with a little NHL experience as well as some younger aged players who are ready to really make a name for themselves, i.e. Kaapo Kakko. So if they’re able to score early in this game, I like their chances. But the longer they go without a goal, the more the Swiss confidence rises and they become a dangerous team after that. Obviously Finland knows at this point that no game is over until it’s over, even if you’re just 46 seconds away from defeat. But an early goal or two in this game will definitely help them out.
I’ll see everybody at the USA vs Russia live blog at 3:45pm EST. I’ll have a streaming link provided for the game there. Can’t publish the link too early or else the stream could get taken down.