The Finns delivered another 60-minute effort in beating the Swiss and strengthened the pre-tournament belief that they were the only team in Group A capable of challenging Canada. They found themselves trailing for the first time in the tournament after a power-play goal by Atillio Biasca at the 3:44 mark of the first period. But it took star center and 2020 first-round pick Anton Lundell only 36 second later to tie the score at 1-1 when he converted a goal-mouth feed from Kasper Simontaival. The Finns continued to dictate the terms for the remainder of the opening frame but penalties and the goaltending of Switzerland’s Thibault Fatton kept the game tied into the second period.
Finland opened the game up in the second period and took the lead for good at 4:53 on a power-play tally from center Juuso Parssinen — a Nashville Predators prospect. Parssinen took the puck up the middle of the ice and into the Swiss zone before beating Fatton with a backhander. They outshot the Swiss in the second by a 15-6 margin but additional undisciplined penalties prevented the Finns from expanding on their lead until the final period. Winger Aku Raty deflected home a key insurance marker on the power play midway through the third off a nice feed from 2022 draft phenom Brad Lambert. Simontaival later capped the scoring with a power-play goal of his own as the Finns outshot the Swiss 34-8 over the final 40 minutes and 43-14 for the game.
The score made this game closer than it should have been, mostly because of the amount of penalties the Finns were taking. If there is a silver lining to that, one can point to the quality work conducted by the Finnish penalty kill, which could be busy in their critical match against Canada on Dec. 31.
#WJC: C Juuso Parssinen (NAS 7th/2019) exploits the matador defense and scores on the backhand for a PPG. Finland leads Switzerland 2-1 about six minutes into the second period. pic.twitter.com/Jl8ZATkncK
C/W Atillio Biasca (SUI): Biasca is a versatile forward who had a bit of a coming out party in the loss to Finland; at least from a tournament standpoint. He was one of the top picks in the last CHL Import Draft (5th overall to Halifax) after a successful season in Switzerland as Zug U20’s second-line center behind current Swiss teammate Dario Allenspach. He was expected to be one of the go-to forwards for Switzerland, which lacked experienced scoring punch up front beyond winger Simon Knak. But Biasca was in shoot-first mode against the Finns, and his snipe on the power play was not only impressive but also delivered the first lead of the tournament for the Swiss. He saw additional time during the man advantage because of the high number of penalties the Finns were taking, and each time it seemed like he wasn’t willing to hesitate firing pucks towards the upper half, regardless of whether or not a shooting lane was clear. His accuracy after the goal was inconsistent, but the velocity definitely put his opponents on notice. From a skating standpoint, Biasca’s straight-line speed seems average although he is well balanced, agile, and peels back under pressure when operating along the wall.
#WJC: C/W Atillio Biasca (2021/2003) opens the scoring with a PPG to give the Swiss a temporary 1-0 lead over Finland in the first period. Biasca was quiet in exhibition and loss to Slovakia but still a decent draft prospect. Went 5th overall to Halifax in the CHL Import Draft pic.twitter.com/8yLNE5GmJX
C Samuel Helenius (FIN): Helenius was busier as a top penalty killer than he was in the win against Germany and his ice time appeared to have at 5v5 increased as well. It’s become obvious that the Finns consider him one of only a handful of expert checkers once when the score is close or a penalty kill is needed, and Helenius uses his frame and smarts to kill precious seconds off the clock. Helenius also had his best scoring chance in two games by anticipating well and getting into open ice for a partial break that revealed his heavy wrister — a move he’s used with success in Finland’s elite SM-Liiga. In total, Helenius played 14:33 (an increase of 38 seconds from Friday) and went for 7-for-12 on draws (12-for-21 for the tournament).
#WJC: If you see a two-way, 6-foot-5 center in open ice as often as you see Samuel Helenius, chances are he anticipates really well and has a high hockey IQ. pic.twitter.com/TjvNrHVp2e
Switzerland: Not having the horses to finish is proving costly to the goal-starved Swiss, who through their first two games received excellent goaltending from Thibault Fatton (.933 save percentage) but have yet to score an even-strength marker. Each of their first two games were winnable, which pays tribute to the quality of their defense and defensive play of their forwards. But their best players, specifically center Lorenzo Canonica and winger Simon Knak, have to be better at creating chances by winning puck battles and making smart passes. With losses to the Slovaks and Finns, their fate for the medal round will be determined in the finale against Germany on Dec. 30.
Finland: The victory allowed the Finns to remain undefeated in group play to keep pace with Canada, but this game was closer than it should have been. The Finns were whistled for six minors, including three in a row after they took a 2-1 lead. Some may say that a 4-1 win with a 45-19 advantage in shots is domination, and that much was true from a puck-possession standpoint. But this was a 2-1 game midway through the final period despite the ice being tilted against the Swiss and the Finns effortlessly executing cycle after cycle. That means that they need to be better at finishing and making life miserable for opposing goalies, because it seemed like Fatton saw everything the Finns threw at him. It won’t get easier, however, as they should expect to have a tougher time generating offense against the stingy Slovaks, who unlike the Swiss have balance up and down the lineup.
History tells us that the path to gold at the World Juniors tens to be more rocky than smooth, and you don’t have to go that far back to find examples. This version of Team Canada knows all about it, as their 2020 victory at this tournament had as many high-wire moments as run-and-gun blowouts. And if this near-historic Canadian squad comprised of nearly 20 first-round draft picks is successful at defending their crown, then they’ll probably point towards Sunday’s 3-1 escape from embarrassment against Slovakia as a critical moment that helped get them there.
Canada took an early 1-0 lead when defenseman Jordan Spence, a fill-in for the suspended Braden Schneider, slapped a loose puck in the low slot past goalie Samuel Hlavaj at the 4:08 mark. From that point, however, a slogging match commenced, with both nations going back and forth while trying to gain the inside areas of the ice.
The Slovaks throughout the night used a tight-checking system that neutralized their opponent’s speed and turned the typical Canadian pressure-packed shift into a harmless one-and-done. What helped Canada was that the Slovaks were generating even less with only four shots in each of the first two periods. On the other end, Hlavaj made a handful of key saves but wasn’t tested as often as expected.
It wasn’t until late in the third stanza when Dylan Cozens, fresh off a six-point effort in the blowout win over Germany, spotted a streaking Phil Tomasino, who raced in and lifted a shot over Hlavaj’s glove with just 3:35 remaining in regulation. Martin Chromiak finally solved Canada’s stingy defense by rifling a shot past Devon Levi with 1:24 left, but that would be as close as Slovakia came. Buffalo Sabres prospect Jack Quinn, who had a strong game in all three zones, sealed the win for Canada with an empty-net goal.
Top 2021 Draft Prospect
LHD Simon Becar (SVK): A promising 2003-born puck mover with a strict adherence to slot coverage and one-on-one play, Becar saw an ice-time spike in the final period and for good reason — his quick feet and active stick were critical in denying Canadian forwards the inside and limited them to mosty low-percentage passes. You can tell he has the urge and confidence to take the puck and jet up ice, but his job requirements in Edmonton seem to keep him with a relatively short leash. Becar isn’t big — he’s listed at 6 feet and 150 pounds — but you won’t see him avoid contact or give up in a puck battle. Of course, bulking up is something he must do in order to win in those situations.
Canada: It wasn’t a blowout like the match against Germany, which automatically makes any score short of 16-2 an excuse to criticize something (or someone). The reality is that this is a team-driven event, and what better way to determine who’s reliable to your left or right in a tightly-checked affair with suboptimal conditions for flair and creativity. The Canadians remain gold-medal favorites no matter what the score or outcome was against slovakia, but brief moments of sloppy play and rushed decisions will be analyzed by Canada’s eventual opponents moreson than by disgruntled fans.
Slovakia: The Slovaks’ performance from a game-plan execution standpoint was as close to perfect as you can get, although moreso from the defensive side of things. Still, they were able to go 12 rounds with the heavyweight champion and nearly pulled off what would have been one of the greatest upsets in World Juniors’ history. Couple this performance from Hlavaj with the shutout pitched by Simon Lakoczy against the Swiss and you give the Slovaks confidence to make noise beyond the preliminary round.
Sunday’s third game turned out to be its best, and potentially the most exciting of the opening round. The Russians may be the bigger hockey power and perennial goal-medal candidate, but it’s the Czechs who in recent years have given them the most trouble in preliminary action. The 2021 edition of this rivalry became a hotly-contested and physical match with neither side being to establish consistent zone superiority for significant stretches.
The more time that flew off the clock, the tighter the play became. The Russians had the more dangerous lineup and their star players — Vasily Podkolzin, Rodion Amirov, and Yegor Chinakhov — yet opted more mostly low-danger or low-percentage shots. Although they were in control of the puck more than the Czechs in the middle frame, the better chances came in front of Russian goalie Yaroslav Askarov, who stopped three breakways to keep the Czechs off the board. The turning point came in the late stages of the second when a lengthy Russian shift that pinned the tired Czechs failed to produce a quality scoring chance.
Ironically, it was the exhausted Czechs on that same shift who turned the tables and counterattacked to produce the critical first goal. A lobbed puck off the glass was misjudged by Russian defenseman Shakir Mukhamadullin to allow two onrushing Czechs — Jakub Rychlovsky and Filip Koffer — the ability to speed up ice past a flat-footed Mukhamadullin (who was gassed himself) and allow Rychlovsky to pass to Koffer for the hammerblow that beat Askarov upstairs for a 1-0 lead. The Czechs from that point forward were able to limit the Russians to mostly point shots with Parik slamming the door and Martin Lang scoring an insurance goal early in the third.
#WJC: Czechs open the scoring right after a lengthy Russian possession with Filip Koffer (2021/2001) rifling a shot past Askarov. All heart with perfect execution from an exhausted bunch. Czechs lead Russia 1-0 late in the 2nd. pic.twitter.com/Q7AC1YrU1i
LHD Kirill Kirsanov (RUS): Kirsanov in defeat was voted the Player of the Game and deservedly so. This wasn’t a wide-open game where Kirsanov would have been expected to simply deliver handoff after handoff to one of his teammates while deep in the Russian end. The fact that it was a chest-to-chest struggle enabled him to showcase how smart he is positionally and his poise under pressure. He was nothing short of reliable in each of Russia’s first two games.
Czech Republic: The win over the Russians wasn’t a monumental upset but the manner in which the Czechs stifled a potent attack should put the rest of the competing nations on notice. A win over the Austrians on Dec. 31 guarantees a berth into the quarterfinals and could mean a potential matchup against Canada or Finland. Since Parik has already slammed the door against one superpower, then the likelihood of a cakewalk for future opponents in the knockout round becomes less of a reality. If there is one concern moving forward, however, it’s related to offense — the Czechs have been limited to only three goals in their first two games combined.
Russia: As tough a loss as this was, the Russians should take comfort in the fact that this was a scoreless game until a flukey play broke the deadlock. They didn’t make many adjustments thereafter, however, and the Czechs pinned the Russians to the outside for most of the final period. In terms of the standings, this loss makes it tougher to win Group B but it’s not impossible — the Russians can control their own destiny as long the Czechs lose to the U.S. on Tuesday and Russia wins their final two matches against Austria and Sweden. No easy task, but certainly possible with a stopper like Askarov in net.