This was a critical game for both squads since neither are expected to challenge Canada or Finland for the group’s top two spots. The Slovaks held an early advantage in territorial play thanks to four straight power plays but Swiss goalie Thibault Fatton kept the game scoreless for two periods. Switzerland pushed back heavily in the third and came close several times to breaking the deadlock, but the Slovaks held firm despite the disadvantage in possession and surrendering several quality chances that nearly put them behind.
It wasn’t until late in the third when the game’s first (and only) goal was scored, courtesy of a key step-up in the neutral zone by Slovakian 2022 draft prospect Simon Nemec and a rebound buried by Roman Faith with 5:43 remaining in regulation. Nemec connected with Michal Mrazik at the Swiss blue line, and Mrazik’s initial shot was kicked out to Faith who buried a shot inside the left post. Slovakian goalie Simon Latkoczy matched Fatton save for save, including a brilliant glove stop on defenseman Inaki Baragano with 3:17 left.
#WJC: Beautiful save from USHL’er Simon Latkóczy (2021/2002) as he pushes strong to snag a shot Simon Knak got all of. Remember that one if the Slovaks hang on and can take 3rd in the group. pic.twitter.com/7CaB9Nsiaz
LHD Giancarlo Chanton (SUI): A former OHL defenseman with the Niagara Ice Dogs, Chanton only played 13:27, but the Swiss iced eight blueliners in their opening match with none seeing more than 17 minutes. He didn’t dent the scoresheet and Chanton didn’t have a single shot attempt but he was reliable on the penalty kill and was consistently successful in beating back pressure with poise and smart passes. Chanton has ideal length for a defenseman (6-foot-1), uses effective stick-on-puck techniques, and keeps a tight gap while angling opponents to the outside.
#WJC: More from Giancarlo Chanton the Safety Net as he comes off the bench to collect and then deliver a strike up ice.
Still scoreless in the 2nd but shots are misleading considering the four or five Slovak power plays. Even affair IMO. pic.twitter.com/baxCZkYPKG
Slovakia: Now that they won the critical opening match in group play, the Slovaks likely realize they are just one win away from solidifying a medal-round berth and the third spot in Group A. Although goalie Samuel Hlavaj was expected to see the lion’s share of minutes in goal, the Day 1 shutout pitched by Latkoczy should land him as the starter in the Dec. 28 matchup against the heavily-favored Canadians, who have outscored the Slovaks 19-0 in their last three preliminary-round meetings. One area to monitor is Slovakia’s power play, which on Friday was 0-for-5 with the man advantage.
Switzerland: The collective push exhibited throughout most of the final period by the young Swiss can be briefed as a moral victory, but this defeat could have profound implications on their medal-round hopes. Lucky for them the Germans are dealing with serious COVID-related personnel issues that give the Swiss hope when the two neighboring nations meet on Dec. 30 in what essentially is a do-or-die match. It’s fair to assume significant lineup changes to take place from now until them, as matchups against the Canadians and Finns preceding Switzerland’s important meeting with Germany aren’t expected to go their way.
The favored Finns wasted little time taking advantage of Germany’s depleted lineup and were able to dominate both the shot and possession game from start to finish. Florida Panthers’ 2020 first-rounder Anton Lundell gave Finland a 1-0 lead at the 3:38 mark of the first period after he roofed a perfect cross-slot feed from defenseman Santeri Hatakka. German goalie Arno Tiefensee kept it that way for most of the period, but Arizona Coyotes’ prospect Aku Raty poked home a loose puck with only 12 seconds left in the frame to increase Finland’s edge to 2-0.
Playing with only 14 skaters due to positive COVID tests, the understrength Germans were heavily outshout throughout the match. Finland made it 3-0 early in the second off a tip-in from Columbus Blue Jackets’ youngster Mikael Pyyhtia, but Germany responded with a power-play goal from QMJHL’er Samuel Dube at 5:34 and a one-timer off a 2-on-1 from prized Ottawa Senators’ prospect Tim Stutzle just over five minutes later. That would be the closest the Germans would come, however, as Toronto Maple Leafs draftee Topi Niemela wristed home a shot less than two minutes after the Stutzle tally. Winnipeg Jets’ neophyte Henri Nikkanen then made it 5-2 after he potted a power-play marker with 6:09 remaining in the second. Potential 2021 draft prospect Florian Elias scored for Germany in the third, but the Finns prevailed thanks to a 50-22 advantage in shots.
#WJC: C Anton Lundell (FLA 1st/2020) with a beautiful touch off a nice pace from LHD Santeri Hatakka (SJS 6th/2019) to give Finland a 1-0 lead over #Deutschland. This wasn’t as easy at he made it look. pic.twitter.com/uxuJvt8WGV
C Samuel Helenius (FIN): The son of former Calgary Flames’ defenseman Sami Helenius, Samuel was deployed as Finland’s lead penalty killer on the first unit and fourth-line center. Already considered a likely first-round pick in the 2021 NHL draft, Helenius didn’t hurt his reputation as an expert checker and physical presence by playing aggressive while down a man and using his strong upper body and long reach to break up opposing cycles. He also had two shots on goal and went 5-for-9 on draws in 13:55 of ice time. Although Anton Lundell should be summoned to take the bulk of late-close draws, don’t be surprised to see Helenius on the ice as well if Finland is nursing a one-goal lead.
#WJC: He lost the draw, but C Samuel Helenius (2021/2002) shows what an active stick is supposed to look like for a forward on PK1. He returned 2 shifts later and killed more clock. Easily one of the better penalty killers among first-year eligibles I’ve seen the last few years. pic.twitter.com/TB4LNZRLIS
Finland: Beating Germany was to be expected for the medal-hungry Finns, who would like need to remain undefeated in group play when they meet Canada in the preliminary-round finale on Dec. 31. They’re off on Saturday before Sunday’s meeting with a desperate Swiss team that should want to avoid losing two straight to start the tournament. Although the Swiss don’t have top-level scorers like Germany’s Tim Stutzle and J.J. Peterka (who combined for nine of Germany’s 22 shots), they do have a strong rotation of defensemen and can count on goalie Thibault Fatton to keep the game relatively close. If the Swiss find a way to slow down Finland’s top line centered by Anton Lundell, look for prized 2022 draft prospect Brad Lambert to try and take over the same way he did against the Germans (Lambert had six shots on goal in under 14 minutes).
Germany: There won’t be much of a rest period for the depleted German roster, which faces powerhouse Canada on Saturday. Of course, it’s doubtful the Germans think they have a chance at keeping the game close, let alone win against an opponent with nearly 20 NHL first-round draft picks. But a critical factor for Germany is not only avoiding injury, but also limiting the ice time of their key forwards if the match against the Canadians becomes a laugher early on. Nine Germans played at least 20 minutes in the loss to Finland, including a mind-numbing 26:01 from Stutzle. The good news is that they will have days off before important matches with Slovakia on Dec. 28 and Switzerland on Dec. 30, respectively.
The main event of Day 1 didn’t lived up to it’s billing as a nail biter, as a tight-checking affair that saw Russian and Americans fighting for room in the middle of the ice had a frantic finish with the Russians ultimately hanging on for the victory. The game opened up for only a brief moment in the second period, however, with the Russians capitalizing on puck handling miscues from U.S. goalie Spencer Knight to take a comfortable lead that the Americans eventually chipped away at. It was the first time in recent years where two goalies drafted in the first round met in a preliminary-round match, with the advantage in this match going to Russia’s Yaroslav Askarov. A 2020 first-round pick of the Nashville Predators, Askarov was far from perfect but avoided the kind of critical errors that led to his counterpart being pulled.
Russia took an early 1-0 lead when Carolina Hurricanes’ draftee Vasily Ponomayov tipped home a point shot at 8:07. The Americans responded with 5:59 left in the first via a point shot of their own, as Cam York’s wrister snuck through a maze of bodies and sticks to tie the score 1-1. The game remained deadlocked until 3:12 of the second when a perfect home-run pass from Tampa Bay prospect Maxim Groshev caught a streaking Zakhar Bardakov for a breakaway goal and a 2-1 lead. It was from that point when Knight’s evening began to unravel, as his clearing attempt to a covered Jake Sanderson resulted in a turnover from the latter, with Ponomaryov wristing one past Knight for a 3-1 lead with 8:52 left.
Knight’s evening came to an end less than two minutes later when his failed clearing attempt was picked off along the right boards by Ilya Safonov, who fired a wrist shot off of a retreating Knight and into the net. Knight was replaced by Calgary Flames’ seventh-round pick Dustin Wolf, who stopped all 11 shots he faced, including a breakaway from Columbus 2020 first-rounder Yegor Chinakhov. The Americans were sloppy with puck management throughout the game and managed only 15 shots on goal through two periods before waking up in the third. Tallies by John Farinacci and Trevor Zegras in the later stages of the final stanza brought the Americans within a goal at 4-3, but Chinakhov sealed Russia’s win with an empty-net goal in the final minute.
Top 2021 Draft Prospect
C Matthew Beniers (U.S.): A bull of a power center whose efforts on or off the puck are never questioned or criticized, Beniers was one of only a handful of Americans who provided consistent play every shift. He was rewarded for his hard work in the third period by seeing ice time during the late power-play that resulted in a goal from Trevor Zegras. Not only did Beniers do all the “little things” coaches require from their depth players, but he also chipped in with a couple of scoring chances and won half of his 10 draws in 16:16 of ice time. If the way he was used in the third period is any indication of his future deployment, expect to see Beniers in all critical stages of close games from this point forward.
U.S.: The 2001 birth year is tracking to become the best in U.S. hockey history, as it produced a record eight first-round picks from the development program that continues to supply the NHL with star talent. Most of those prospects were in the lineup on Friday night, but dating back to February of 2019, it marked the third time in the last four tries that the group lost to the Russians at either the under-18 or under-20 level (the lone U.S. win was at last year’s world junior tournament). The key is to put the loss behind them and take their frustration out on the underdog Austrians on Saturday. Will head coach Nate Leaman go back to Knight in an attempt to regain his elite form, or did Wolf do enough in relief to wrestle the No. 1 job away from his highly-regarded teammate? Time will tell, but what is certain is that winning Group B became far more difficult than it was prior to Friday’s action.
Russia: The Russians get a much-deserved day off on Saturday in preparation for Sunday evening’s meeting with the Czechs, who open play against Sweden on Dec. 26. A win over their European rivals not only keeps the Russians as the favorite to win Group B, but also allows them to maintain pace with Canada for the semifinal round’s coveted No. 1 seed. Remember, it was Askarov who was posterized by the Czechs at the 2020 games, so expect him to seek revenge on Sunday. Askarov likely serves as a backup when the Russians face the Austrians on Dec. 29 to have him rested for a potential first-place match with Sweden on Dec. 30.