BERN – The preliminary round of the IIHF World Championship is now history; and while the games provided a lot of excitement, the final standings looked as expected. The big nations advanced to the 12-team qualification round without any major problems – aside from Sweden’s hiccup against Latvia.
Of course, that means we can no longer consider Germany a major nation, since next year’s World Championship host lost all three games, ending up in the relegation round with Austria, Denmark and Hungary.
What makes matters worse for the other three teams is the fact that, as the host of next year’s tournament, Germany can’t be relegated according to the IIHF regulations. So only one of the three will survive.
Canada steams on in the tournament as one of three teams – along with Russia and Finland – still with a perfect 3-0-0 record. Canada also has the best goal differential in the tournament, having scored 22 times and allowing just four in three games.
“It’s just a matter of getting used to playing with each other, working together and getting better as we go along,” said Canadian defenseman Shea Weber after picking up four points in a 7-3 beating of Slovakia.
The tournament continues with a qualification round of two groups with six teams each. The best four in each group advance to the quarterfinal, which is played in a crossover format, so the top-seed in one group plays against the fourth-seed in the other group.
Canada’s Martin St-Louis is the tournament’s leading scorer with three goals and six assists through three games.
HELLO, I’M THE MONSTER
Entering the tournament, Team Sweden coach Bengt-Åke Gustafsson didn’t want to name a starting goaltender and in the first three games, the Swedes played three different goalies. Johan Holmqvist got the nod in the Game 1 against Austria, which Sweden won 7-1; Stefan Liv played Game 2 against Latvia, a shootout loss.
For Game 3 against the U.S., the coach started Johan Gustavsson, the Swedish playoff MVP with Farjestad. It was Gustavsson’s fourth game with Team Sweden and his first in the World Championship.
Gustavsson, nicknamed “The Monster,” introduced himself to the Americans early, impressing U.S. coach Ron Wilson, who just might be his future coach in Toronto. (According to media reports, Gustavsson has talked to 16 NHL teams and is close to choosing Toronto.)
“How often do you see a goalie give up five goals and still be their best player?” Wilson asked. “He was fantastic. We might have hand nine or 10 goals tonight otherwise.”
The Americans had a 5-2 lead with 11 minutes remaining, but the Swedes tied the game and won it in overtime.
The next day Holmqvist again got the nod, but was injured 32 minutes in with the game tied 3-3. Gustavsson replaced Holmqvist in goal and got beat twice as Sweden, once again, rallied from behind to tie the game in regulation – only to lose it in overtime, 6-5.
VOTE OF CONFIDENCE?
You know times have changed when Team USA’s starting goalie is from the Russian league. Robert Esche is back with Team USA after a great season in the Kontinental League and Wilson started him in all three games. But a .786 save percentage against Sweden prompted questions about a change in goal for the Americans’ first qualification-round game against France, Friday.
“There’s a big difference in our goaltending and we wanted to win tonight,” said Wilson about the decision to start Esche every game, instead of the Coyotes’ Al Montoya.
“Right now we have one goalie who we’re confident can play most games. We probably have somebody else coming (from North America). All our NHL goalies are hurt and the ones we wanted to have couldn’t come.”
Esche’s save percentage in the three games was .878, 14th in the tournament. France’s Fabrice Lhenry tops the list at .973.
STRALMAN TO THE RESCUE
Team Sweden lost Tobias Enstrom after he was checked into the boards head first during the game against Latvia. Enstrom suffered 10 facial fractures and was operated on at a Bern hospital. Also, former Maple Leaf Kenny Jonsson left the game after the first period to rest his hip – forcing the Swedes to finish the game with only four defensemen.
Meanwhile, Anton Stralman was done with the American League playoffs, so he rushed to Bern to help the Tre Kronor. He picked up an assist in his first game and was plus-1. In his second game against Russia, he scored a goal and was again a plus player.
Last year, Stralman scored three goals and seven points in eight games at the World Championship in Quebec City.
SLAVA TO THE FANS
Russian coach Vyacheslav Bykov is a popular figure in Switzerland thanks to his 10 years in the Swiss leagues, eight with HC Fribourg-Gottéron in the National League A during the 1990s.
Fans have been seen wearing his old sweaters during Russia’s games and when he was shown on the PostFinance Arena’s scoreboard during a game, they cheered so loudly the infamously serious-looking Bykov even smiled, a sight not yet repeated in the tournament.
NHL MEETS THE LIONS
IIHF general secretary Horst Lichtner raised the possibility of problems with the Champions League next season, citing the global economic downturn as a negative driver.
“We announced that next season we’d take the next step with the Champions Hockey League (expanding it to 22 nations), but that is currently under discussion,” he said. “It is more likely that we’ll play it like this season. If we can continue like last season, we have achieved a lot for hockey in Europe.”
Lichtner emphasized the chances of the CHL not being played at all next season are very low.
The NHL team participating in next fall’s Victoria Cup, the matchup between the CHL winner and an NHL challenger, will be announced shortly, he added.
“Once we sign (the contract with the NHL) next week, we’ll announce the NHL team and the location of the game,” Lichtner said. “The Zurich Lions will be one of the teams and it will be played in Switzerland.”
THN’s European correspondant Risto Pakarinen is at the World Championship in Switzerland and will be filing reports regularly throughout the tournament.
Risto Pakarinen is a Finnish freelance writer, based in Stockholm, Sweden who also writes for NHL.com and IIHF.com. When not writing about European hockey on THN, he’s probably writing about hockey at ristopakarinen.com/hockey as Puckarinen. You can email him at [email protected]pakarinen.com.
Go to THN’s World Championship Central HERE.