The preliminary rounds of the WJC featured some tense matchups and some blowouts, but the medal rounds have turned out to be real nail-biters.
Switzerland goalie Benjamin Conz won’t be undrafted for long following his spectacular performance in the quarterfinals game against Canada on Sunday afternoon. Although Canada eventually walked away with the win, the score was 1-0 in Switzerland’s favor for much of the first period. Team Canada relentlessly pelted Conz with shots, slipping four past the young goalie, but he made dozens of fantastic, sprawling saves that caught the eyes of many throughout the game.
Russia began their tenacious run for the gold in the quarterfinal game immediately after that. Overlooked for much of the World Juniors tournament, Team Russia roared back from a 3-1 deficit in the final minutes of the third period to bring the game within one, and Kings’ prospect Maxim Kitsyn scored with two minutes remaining to bring the game to overtime. Capitals’ prospect Yevgeni Kuznetsov launched a quick wrist-shot past Finland’s Joni Ortio (Calgary Flames prospect) to seal the victory for Russia. Russia came through with another thrilling victory in the semi-finals today, beating the top seed Sweden in a nerve-wracking shootout. Sweden came back with three unanswered goals to pull ahead, but Sergei Kalinin—who plays on ex-Ranger Jaromir Jagr’s KHL team—scored with a minute and a half remaining to once again bring the game to overtime. Denis Golubev tallied the only goal of the shootout to propel Russia to the gold medal round.
Team USA earned a bye to the semifinals with their undefeated record. Unfortunately, team Canada came prepared. Widely considered the favorites of the tournament, the US squad walked into yesterday’s semi-final game with the pressure of defending last year’s gold medal weighing heavily on their shoulders. Although there were many of us who proudly sported USA hockey jerseys, the HSBC arena was over-flooded with red Canadian jerseys. The home team advantage meant nothing with thousands of screaming, chanting, taunting Canadians egging on their squad and demoralizing the USA team. (And I finally realized how the Islanders must feel when they play the Rangers at “home”.) USA goalie Jack Campbell practically stood on his head to keep his team in the game, but Canada outshot USA nearly two to one and managed to get four goals past the eighteen-year-old Stars draft pick. Coming into that game, Campbell had never earned less than gold in all of his international hockey appearances. He boasted the highest save percentage of this World Juniors (.957) with a 1.03 GAA and a 3-1-0-0 record. Although Campbell was at the top of his game last night, his team crumbled in front of him, and it seemed that team USA could barely put together a solid offensive rush throughout the game. Mark Visentin, the Canadian goaltender, stumped the speedier, more skilled USA team and allowed them only one goal throughout the contest.
Ryan Bourque and Chris Kreider—the two Rangers prospects on team USA—played with energy, but did not manage to finish on any of their offensive chances. Bourque has two assists in the tournament, and Kreider has two goals and two assists. Czech player Roman Horak picked up his first point in the Czech Republic’s game against Germany today. Team Czech will play Slovakia tomorrow in the relegation round. Jesper Fasth has three goals and two assists in the tournament thus far. He assisted on Sweden’s second goal against Russia, and was visible all over the ice throughout the game. Fasth will face off against fellow New York Rangers prospects Bourque and Kreider in Wednesday’s bronze medal game.