The World Junior Championships began on Saturday, December 26 here in Helsinki. We took in the Group A games at Helsinki Ice Hall, while Group B got started in Hartwall Arena.
Game 1 saw the Russians beat the Czechs in a shootout in Group B at Hartwall Arena.
Game 2 featured Group A action at Helsinki Ice Hall between Sweden and Switzerland. The first period was penalty filled and ultimately decided the game, with the Swiss taking 2 major penalties and allowing 3 goals. At 4:58 Fabian Heldner received a major penalty for ‘checking to the head and neck area’ and the Swedes scored to make it 2-0. Blood was drawn on the check, but it may have been the visor that made the cut. This call should perhaps have not been 5 minutes and was originally called elbowing. However, at the 15:37 mark Chris Egli of Switzerland put a blindside hit on Swedish star and AHL leading scorer William Nylander. This was very deserving of the 5 minute major penalty and game misconduct issued by the officials. Switzerland took themselves completely out of the game mentally with the penalties and resulting goals against. I am not sure what their game plan was coming in, but they lost their way. The Swedes added 3 more goals in the second and 2 in the third. Alexander Nylander came away with 4 assists and the early tournament scoring lead. However, despite the victory, if William Nylander is lost for a significant length of time their tournament title hopes will suffer.
Game 3 was the home opener for the host team and despite Finland only taking a 1-0 lead into the third period, they blew out Belarus 6-0 in the end behind 2 goals and 1 assist for 2016 draft projected top 5 pick Jesse Puljujarvi. Fellow top 5 hopeful Patrik Laine had 1 goal, while Colorado Avalanche forward Mikko Rantanen had the empty netter.
Game 4 had the matchup of the day with Team USA taking on Canada. Neither team played their absolute best, but the level of play far exceeded the Sweden/Switzerland tilt. It was a 4-2 final with Team USA picking up the win against their arch rivals.
It was a scoreless but fairly even first, until USA forward Alex Debrincat had a brain cramp and speared Canadian forward Travis Konecny. In international hockey that gets called every time and will get you thrown out, as it did in this case. Team USA proceeded to kill off almost 3 minutes of the 5 minute major penalty to end the first period.
To start the second the Americans killed off the remainder of the penalty. Minutes later a broken play resulted in Canada’s first goal by Matt Barzal. Late in the period Team USA’s Colin White won a faceoff in the Canada zone and charged the net. Sonny Milano banked the puck off the boards behind the net which White roofed with a backhand to tie it at one.
With the third tied at 1-1 Canada took a goalie interference penalty at the 6:54 mark. About 30 seconds into the power play, captain Zach Werenski sent a wrist shot on net that found its way in to put USA up 2-1. The predictable even-up call came 2:13 later and Dylan Strome tied it with a wrister from the slot. With the teams at even strength and a little over 3 minutes to go Louie Belpedio fired from the point and it appeared to deflect in off Canada captain Joe Hicketts to give USA the lead. Then with 2:37 left, Canadian goalie Mason McDonald let a puck trickle through him and Auston Matthews stuffed it home for the insurance marker.
That stood as the winner as Alex Nedeljkovic had a solid night in the USA net.
As for individual performances, the entire D had a great night with active sticks, deflecting many shots harmlessly up above the glass into the protective netting and breaking up many passes. Sabres prospect Will Borgen had a good night on the second paring with Louie Belpedio. Captain Zach Werenski played a big role and finished with a goal and an assist.
In the forward ranks, the first line had a limited showing with Debrincat getting tossed in the first. Matthew Tkachuk looked good all night, playing with speed and gumption. I admit that I still have not figured out Auston Matthews’ game. He only looked truly dangerous a couple times, but was there in the end with a goal and assist. As a projected first overall pick hopefully he will show more as the tournament goes on. In comparison to Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, Matthews’ acceleration was far behind in this game, he looked more like a semi starting from a stoplight than the burst we have seen from Jack in his first season.
Moving down the lines, Christian Dvorak needs to pass less often and use some more hockey sense to not be so predictable. He looks like a good candidate to lose playing time if this keeps up. Sonny Milano did not show much of his slick play in the contest. On the bright side, Nick Schmaltz looked fantastic on almost every shift.
Coach Ron Wilson showed a commitment to short shifts and rolling lines which will help keep everyone fresh.
On the Canadian side, Dylan Strome was by far their best forward and there was no real standout on D.
There is room for improvement on both sides and it would surprise no one if the two teams met again in the medal round.
We had a great experience at Helsinki Ice Hall despite some less than ideal seats. Fortunately we don’t have that location for any other games.
With Team USA coming out on top it was an awesome start to the tournament and a great day one from our perspective.
We also got our first taste of snow as a shower during the games left a 1/2 inch on the ground for our trip home.