Ever since the IIHF changed the format of the World Juniors to allow four teams in each group to make the quarterfinals, and took away the incentive of a bye for the top team in each group, the preliminary round of the tournament has felt kind of meaningless.
Never more so than this year when the US decided it was no big deal to play one of their prelim games inside a Slushee machine for the right to say they played in front of the Most Half-Capacity Crowd in World Juniors History. And also when they grinded out a second place finish in their group with a dramatic final minutes victory over Finland on the last day of group play, only to have that win earn them the right to meet Russia in the quarterfinals.
The history with Russia in the knockout rounds is not pretty. The US is 1-3 all-time against the Russians in the knockout rounds of the World Juniors. The one win was of course last year’s semifinal shootout victory. Thrilling as that victory was, it’s worth remembering that the United States needed to score on two shootout goals just to extend the game before finally winning. NHL shootout percentage is about 40%—and just watching this tournament, the number feels way lower in the WJCs—which means the US probably loses there 4 out of 5 times.
The losses feel almost eerily familiar. In both 2014 and 2015, the United States finished second in their group, as they did this year, while the Russians took a surprising loss in the preliminary rounds(in 2015 it was to the Czechs, just as it was this year) to finish third in their group.
Rosters turn over every year, so the history may not mean much. But the point is, don’t sleep on the Russians just because they under-performed in group play. They’ve done that in the past, but the United States, in an elimination game, is always going to draw their best effort, and their best effort is really good.
The good news is that The Great Bear is just as afraid of us as we are of them. The Russians pulled their goalie late in the a 3-3 tie against Sweden in hopes of earning a result that would avoid the Americans. And there’s good reason for that. This a really good United States team, fully capable of winning the next three games and taking gold. This has the making of a really fantastic game that could go either way.
-Will Lockwood is out for the US(and possibly the rest of the college hockey season too) with an injury, and Logan Brown is out of tonight’s game against Russia, leaving the US with just 11 healthy forwards. This is why it’s such a big deal to take the best roster possible rather than stocking the bottom slots with grinders under the assumption that it probably won’t matter anyway. There aren’t any weak links in the US forward group, which is good, because they’ll need all hands on deck tonight.
-Joseph Woll will get the start in goal tonight. That had to be a tough call. He started the tournament as the clear number one, but hasn’t inspired a ton of confidence with his play yet, while Jake Oettinger looked pretty good in admittedly weird circumstances in the outdoor game. I think there was hope that the goalie situation would work itself out in the preliminary round, and that didn’t really happen. I probably would have started Woll too, but I could see there being a short leash on him if he gives up a couple goals early.
-The key player in tonight’s game to me is Adam Fox. In the Slovakia loss, we got the bad Fox, with an ugly, ugly defensive play on Slovakia’s game-winning goal. Against Finland, we got the good Fox when he broke through for a game-winning goal. I suspect at some point tonight, the US is really going to need a goal, and Fox is the type of player with game-breaking offensive ability to create it.
-The big names for Russia to watch: German Rubtsov, Klim Kostin, and Artur Kayumov are all high draft picks having good tournaments. Vitali Abramov has been quiet this tournament, but his speed could be problematic tonight. Dmitri Sokolov is an extremely inconsistent player, but if he’s playing well, he has potential to be really dangerous.
The most talented offensive player they might have is Andrei Svechnikov, projected to go #2 overall in this summer’s draft. But as a 2000-born player, the Russians don’t give him as much ice time as some of their other forwards. The more he’s on the bench, the better it is for the US, as far as I’m concerned.
-I won’t be so foolish as to offer a prediction. As much as I like this US team, I can’t quite shake the feeling that last year’s team used about a decade’s worth of luck to win that gold medal. I’m expecting a really great game though, that could go either way. It’s going to be a fun night of hockey.