The 2011 IIHF U20 World Junior Hockey Championships have been going on in Buffalo, New York since Boxing Day, and we've been treated to the top teenaged hockey players in the world (or at least those not good enough to be in the NHL already) showing us their talents on the big stage that HSBC Arena, TSN, and the NHL Network provides. It's given us blowouts that leave no one all that happy, but also thrilling overtimes and shootouts that put all your emotions through the wringer. Now we're down to the Final Four, the nations battling for the medals, and the nations involved look awfully familiar.
In the first matchup of the day, going at 3:30 PM EST, the two most decorated European nations will battle head to head for a spot in the final. Sweden, who won "the Group of Death" by virtue of beating Canada on New Year's Eve 6-5 in a shootout, are well rested to take on Russia. Russia advanced thanks to Washington Capitals first round draft pick Evgeny Kuznetsov deciding to put the whole team on his shoulders and stage an incredible late comeback with two goals and one amazing assist to turn a 3-1 Finland win into a 4-3 Russian overtime win. Russia, who played the late game on Sunday (started at 7:30 PM), don't have a lot of time to savour the win in order to try and take on the Swedes, who shut them out in the preliminary round by a score of 2-0. Sweden's goaltender, Ottawa Senators prospect Robin Lehner, was outstanding in that game in preserving the shutout.
The smart money is likely on Sweden, but I picked Russia to win it all to start the tournament and won't back down on that drunken thought.
The second matchup pits the greatest international hockey rivalry of the past fifteen years, Canada and the United States. The two nations have met in the final at three of the top senior men's tournaments since 1996: the 1996 World Cup, the 2002 Olympics and of course, the 2010 Olympics last February. The two country's women's teams are on a completely different level from the rest of the world, and always seem to meet in the final with a thrilling conclusion, and now the world juniors are building quite a rivalry between the North American neighbours as well. And yes, I spelled it neighbours, not neighbors, so you can tell which side of the rivalry I belong to. Last year, on Canadian soil, John Carlson scored the golden goal which lifted the USA to their second ever WJHC title. Their first title was in 2004, when they also beat Canada in the final, avenging their 1997 loss in the finals to Canada. Outside of the 2-1 USA record in the finals, Canada holds the upper edge in this rivalry, so we'll see if that trend continues.
The Americans hold an edge on paper in goal, as Jack Campbell has been very strong in all his WJHC appearances so far in the past two years, while Mark Visentin is getting his first real test after Olivier Roy failed to impress his coaches against the tougher competition in the preliminary rounds. Beyond that, Canada holds an edge in terms of first round NHL draft selections over the Americans (15 to 9) but the Americans can counter that with more WJHC experience (8 returning players to Canada's 4). Canada is going to have to find some ways to beat the American star goaltender, because history tells us they'll be giving up a few themselves.
There is no real smart money in this matchup. Canada played a game yesterday, a not quite easy 4-1 win over a pesky Switzerland team, and have a big unknown in goal. The Americans are, in theory, on home ice, although being in Buffalo the crowd might very well be pro-Canadian by a strong majority. I picked Canada for the final, so I'll be sticking with them as well, but this one could very well be decided in overtime or by a shootout, so anything is possible. Gametime is 7:30 PM EST. Both games are available on TSN in Canada and on the NHL Network in the USA.
Meanwhile, back at the beginning of the tournament, I surveyed a group of experts as to how they thought the tournament would play out. Let's see who is still in the running now that the semifinals are determined:
Neate Sager, Yahoo! Sports' Buzzing the Net blog (Canada): 1. USA, 2. Canada, 3. Sweden
Chris Dilks, SBN's Western College Hockey Blog (USA): 1. USA, 2. Canada, 3. Finland
Uffe Bodin, Hockey Sverige (SWE): 1 and 2. Canada and USA (no order given), 3. Sweden
Urs Berger, HockeyFans.ch (SUI): 1. Canada, 2. USA, 3. Sweden
Eetu Huisman, World of E. Huisman blog (FIN): 1. Canada, 2. Sweden, 3. USA
Bruce Peter, Puck Worlds (me): 1. Russia, 2. Canada, 3. Sweden
Well, I'm still in there for a possibility, but a lot of people picked a Canada/USA final so they aren't going to be quite correct. It's going to be a North America vs. Europe final, which not many anticipated, aside from E. Huisman and I. Though with both of my predicted finalists having to go through a quarterfinal, I'm not that confident in my prediction coming to fruition.
The gold medal game will be on Wednesday at 7:30 PM EST, with the bronze medal game going at 3:30 PM EST on Wednesday as well. There are other games of very little consequence going on Tuesday which will help determine the official placing from 5th to 10th, to determine how next year's groups will be divided.
Bruce Peter is the Manager of Puck Worlds, SB Nation's international hockey blog. He got his first love of international hockey as a kid watching the 1987 Canada Cup, famous for Mario Lemieux's late winning goal for Canada against the USSR on a setup from Wayne Gretzky. Now, he tries to keep up with the development of hockey around the globe on Puck Worlds.