The group stage is over and the knockout round is set. After a week-and-a-half of play, the reinforcements have arrived from the NHL and all that’s left is to sort out which nation will stand supreme at the 2018 World Championship.
Here’s how the field breaks down as the elimination stage gets set to begin Thursday in Denmark:
The Finns weren’t exactly infallible during their run through the group stage, but you’d be hard-pressed to find another team that appears as threatening as the knockout stage gets set to begin. Finland had the second-best attack in the group stage, scoring 38 goals in seven games, and boasted the third-best team defense, allowing just 11 goals against. On top of that, Finland’s duo of Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen finished first and third in group stage scoring, respectively. They’re on fire.
Here’s the thing: a pair of the tournament’s lesser teams managed to poke holes in Finland’s shot at perfection. Denmark defeated Finland 3-2 on the strength of a spectacular goaltending performance and Germany likewise downed Finland, also winning 3-2 thanks to a standout performance in goal. In a single-knockout tournament, and up against some goaltenders who can get hot, that can prove costly.
The good news, though, is Finland has shown up in every big game they’ve played so far. Against the three playoff-bound teams in their group, Finland finished 3-0 by a combined score of 19-4.
No Henrik Lundqvist, no problem. Sweden has been the tournament’s best defensive squad, surrendering only nine goals through seven games during group play, and only three of their games saw an opponent score at least two goals. There were no stumbles against weak competition, solid play against the top teams and the Swedes finished with a perfect record. Really, the only blemish on their play through the entire group stage was their inability to bury Slovakia in regulation, but Mika Zibanejad took care of that in overtime.
What should worry opponents come the elimination stage is that while Sweden suffered some key losses — sniper Elias Pettersson and defenseman Erik Gustafsson are both out for the tournament — they were able to add Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson and Mattias Ekholm by way of the Nashville Predators’ playoff elimination.
Finding a weakness in Sweden is difficult, so putting goaltender Anders Nilsson under duress might be the only way to send them packing. Good luck with that, though.
Given their history at the tournament, maybe the American side shouldn’t be considered a favorite. Not since 1960 has Team USA captured gold at the World Championship, their most recent second-place finish came back in 1956 and they’ve only won bronze three times in the past 20 years.
Patrick Kane sure appears to be a man possessed during this tournament, though, and he alone might be able to win a game by himself with some offensive flourish. He tied for the tournament scoring lead with six goals and 17 points in seven games, and he was the leading force on a United States squad that scored more goals than any other nation during the group stage.
Getting to the top of the podium, however, is going to require getting by the Czechs and then the Swedes. But if there’s any team that will be able to do it on brute scoring force alone, it’s Team USA.
Based solely on the group stage standings, Russia should head into their quarterfinal contest against the Canadians as the favorite. The problem with that, though, is that while Canada has gotten better as the tournament has worn on via addition of talent from eliminated NHL teams, Russia’s roster hasn’t changed one bit. So, a boosted Canadian club against a Russian team that had trouble with the Czechs, Swiss and Swedes? It could go either way.
That said, there are a number of members on this Russian squad who faced some scrutiny for their play during the round robin stage of the Olympics and then turned it on at the right time to win themselves a gold medal on the big stage. Those same players also fought from behind and overcame adversity in that game alone to capture gold. That includes Kirill Kaprizov, who tied for second in tournament goal-scoring, among others. That kind of in-game resilience can pay dividends at this type of tournament, and does anyone really want to draw Russia in this tournament?
This isn’t the all-out all-star team that Canada has previously sent to the World Championship, and that’s evident enough in the fact they dropped a contest to Team USA to open the tournament before losing to Finland and barely squeaking out a win over Latvia in the penultimate game of the group stage. Then again, Canada's World Championship squad features Connor McDavid at the height of his power. He scored five goals and 13 points in seven games and almost doubled the next-best Canadian scorer, which is about par for the course given how his regular season went.
Likely the biggest concern for Canada, however, isn’t the lack of spread-out scoring or the so-so blueline that has been cobbled together. Rather, it’s how Curtis McElhinney holds up in these winner-take-all affairs. He was solid in the group stage — 1.30 goals-against average, .931 save percentage — but he’s going to have a far slimmer margin for error now.
No team enters the knockout stage having won more games by the skin of their teeth. In the group stage, the Czechs won four games by one goal, including two overtime victories against Slovakia and Russia, a shootout win over Switzerland and a one-goal defeat of the Austrians. And while that’s not what we’d call inspiring, it does at least suggest the Czechs can hang in games against any opponent.
It’s a real by-committee approach to scoring for the Czechs, who had 12 players with at least one goal in the tournament, and that’s a good sign in that it means each line can produce when the opportunity comes about. Not as good a sign, though, is that Olympic standout Pavel Francouz is sporting a 2.21 GAA and .904 SP in four games.
The Czechs draw Team USA first and then will have a rematch against the Swedes, should all go well for the Tre Kronor against Latvia. If the Czechs can bring the same game against Sweden, to whom they lost by one in the group stage, one bounce could vault the Czechs into the gold medal game.
THE DARK HORSES
The Swiss have had a topsy-turvy tournament. They barely won their opener over Austria and then shut out Slovakia before dropping three of their next four, with losses coming against the Czechs, Russians and Swedes. There is some hope here, though, in that Switzerland was able to keep the games against their group’s top teams awfully close. The Czech game, for instance, was decided in a shootout. Russia only defeated the Swiss by a single goal. And Sweden only downed the Swiss by two. All close games despite the loss.
Like others, Switzerland also got a significant boost by way of NHL post-season eliminations. Added to the roster in the back half of the tournament were Roman Josi, Kevin Fiala and Timo Meier, and the latter was especially dangerous upon his arrival, scoring one goal and five points in four games.
Switzerland has an incredibly tough task ahead against Finland, but if they squeak by and draw Russia in the semifinal, it could be anyone’s game.
A quick glance at the playoff bracket surely seems to suggest that Latvia is going to get the ol’ thanks-for-coming-out treatment, that they’ll be battered and beaten by the high-powered Swedish side in the quarters. But before looking past Latvia, consider that they held Team USA and Canada to a combined five goals. Consider also that goaltender Elvis Merzlikins is playing out of his skull. At this tournament, Merzlikins has two shutouts and a .949 SP in more than 300 minutes of work. It’s been mentioned already that one game can completely change the makeup of the tournament, and Merzlikins has displayed that game-stealing quality that could shock Sweden in the quarters.
…or, you know, Latvia could finally suffer a massive meltdown and the contest could look a bit like their meeting with Finland, in which the Finns scored eight goals and skated to an easy victory.
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