For the two teams who fell in the semifinal of the World Junior Championship in Calgary, some very harsh “ifs” loom over their heads. Finland and Canada will play for bronze, while the Russians and Swedes face each other for the second time in the tourney, this time for gold.
Both games featured high drama in very different fashion. In the early tilt, Finland took a physical, counterattacking game to their Nordic rivals and held a lead late until goalie Sami Aittokallio made a poor clearing decision that ended up in the back of his net. Then, with the shootout on the line, captain Mikael Granlund saw the puck come to a sickening stop as he tried to juke Swedish netminder Johan Gustafsson, giving the Tre Kronor the win without even registering a final shot on net.
It was a brutal end for the Finns, who played perfectly in the early going and held the Swedes largely to the perimeter. Defenseman Jani Hakanpaa, a St. Louis Blues pick, was excellent, throwing huge checks and neutralizing Sweden's forwards.
“There was a lot of good energy out there,” Hakanpaa said. “We wanted to show we would battle hard. I'm pretty proud of the guys.”
Getting past the pesky Finns meant being patient for the Swedes.
“It was the key, I think,” said defenseman Oscar Klefbom. “We just worked them down.”
Klefbom, an Edmonton first-rounder, was the best Swede on the day, using his size to his advantage and playing very well with the puck. And even though the Swedes threw nearly 60 shots at Aittokallio, the majority were not difficult stops and they knew it.
“We didn't have guys in front of the net,” said draft eligible winger Sebastian Collberg. “Their goaltender had it easy, I think.”
Sweden's opponent on Thursday will be the Russians, who blasted out of the gates against Canada and held on for a 6-5 victory under the most white-knuckle of circumstances. The Russians surrendered four goals in the third period and Canada's big “what if” is certainly going to revolve around its slow start. While Washington Caps super-prospect Evgeny Kuznetsov and top 2012 candidate Nail Yakupov were flying early and often, Canada's guns fumbled the puck. Great chances for Ryan Strome, Mark Stone and Jonathan Huberdeau all were squandered and it took the excellent play of blueliner Dougie Hamilton (the team's best player on the night) to ignite the comeback in the third period.
“Bad bounces? There's no excuse,” said right winger Brett Connolly. “They scored early and we didn't react. It sucks right now.”
Besides Hamilton, the 'D' corps had a rough night. Ryan Murray, another top 2012 prospect, was victimized on several early Russian goals, while Nathan Beaulieu didn't see another shift after giving up on a rush that eventually became the Russians’ game-winning goal. Needless to say, the Russians were thrilled with the result and proved for a second straight year what cold-blooded aces they can be.
“We were ready 100 percent,” Yakupov said. “Eighty-thousand red and white jerseys (sic.), doesn't matter right now. See you next year. We had 30, 20 guys from Siberia screaming 'Russia!' ”
Russian goaltender Andrei Vasilevski was eventually pulled during Canada's amazing third period, but the 2012 prospect was huge for his team in the first period, stopping numerous Canadian attacks. With a less-than-stellar defense in front of him, the youngster had to be great and he was.
Both Russia and Sweden will have to play more complete games in the final, but at least they don't have the haunting questions their fallen opponents are left to answer.