This is when the U-18 World Championship finally starts getting real.
The American squad was dominant from start to finish, showcasing exactly why they were the favorites coming into the tournament. Czechia found itself in second place in Group A after a strong performance in the round-robin. The defending champions, Canada, have looked shaky in all three of their games and could very well be ripe for an early exit. Germany was in a tough group, but still showed some promising signs, despite some a poor goal differential.
The Swedes rebounded from a loss on opening day to Latvia to win Group B while Finland looked rather consistent. Switzerland bettered Latvia in its final game of the round-robin to avoid a date with the Americans in the quarters. Although Latvia finished at the bottom of Group B, its win over the group’s top team could make them a feisty out.
Let’s take a look at each quarterfinal matchup and what to expect:
Canada vs. Finland
This is Thursday's opener, and it might be the most intriguing. Canada underwhelmed in each of their games but they do have the most talented player in the tournament in Connor Bedard. He leads the team with five points, highlighted by his complete takeover of the third period in the game against Germany with a hat-trick. Adam Fantilli has been one of the best offensive creators in the tournament, but he’s been snakebitten a bit. If he can start to find the back of the net a bit more, Canada could be a problem.
The Finns handled business in Group B, winning games against Switzerland and Latvia with relative ease. Topi Rönni and Kasper Halttunen have led the way in the scoring department, but Finland's bread and butter is strong structural hockey. The team's star player and top 2022 NHL draft prospect, Joakim Kemell, missed the second game of the tournament and hasn’t had the game-breaking impact many expect from him thus far.
On paper, this game looks to be the most competitive of any quarterfinal matchup. Finland and Canada both have medal aspirations but only one will get the chance to compete for one. Canada has the star power but lacks the depth up front and on the back end. Finland is a more well-rounded team and play a great system as they always seem to at every level of international competition. Who wins is anyone's guess.
Czechia vs. Switzerland
The Czech squad was the darkhorse team coming into the U-18s and they showed why as they finished second in Group A thanks to a clutch win over Canada. Led by 2022 NHL draft standout Jiří Kulich and 2023 draft-eligible Eduard Šalé, the Czechs were competitive in each game they played. Kulich has been a goal-scoring machine, utilizing his speed and shot to generate offense at every turn. Šalé has been a high-octane offensive creator and leads the tournament in assists.
Switzerland has been feisty but overmatched from a talent perspective. That won't change here. They've had strong performances from players such as Gregory Weber and Simone Terraneo, but lack a game-breaker. Weber has flashed some really high-end skill, carving through the opposition on an end-to-end rush at least once a game but he likely doesn’t have the ability to take over a game the way the Swiss would need him to advance past the quarters.
Czechia’s big win over Canada in overtime set the stage for them to get an easier path to the medal round. They’ve impressed with Kulich and Šalé taking the lead. Defenseman Tomas Hamara has been their rock on the backend and they’ve had depth scoring at key moments as well. Switzerland looks to be outmatched in this one.
Sweden vs. Germany
The Swedes opened their tournament with a stinker against Latvia but have seemed to rebound nicely from that disappointing performance. The 2022 NHL draft-eligible Djurgårdens trio of Noah Östlund, Jonathan Lekkerimäki, and Liam Öhgren have been fantastic and amon the teams top-scorers. Östlund in particular has looked consistently dangerous, using his speed and skill to put opposing defenses on their heels. Defenseman Mattias Hävelid looked outstanding against Finland at both ends of the ice and added two goals to help secure the win. With others such as Calle Odelius and Isac Born looking excellent at times but not having found much success on the scoresheet, it feels like the Swedes still have more to give.
Host nation Germany could be a tough out though as any host generally is. The home crowd will be a factor as they were in each of Germany’s games. Against Canada, there were moments early on when it felt as if the German squad could find a way to upset the defending champs and the crowd was roaring. Julian Lutz has been Germany’s best player and leads the team in scoring with four points but he can’t do it all himself. Their goaltending has flashed brilliance at times but both Simon Wolf and Philipp Deitl had rough moments as well. They play a rough and tumble brand of hockey and if they can push Sweden around physically, that may be their best chance.
The home crowd will play a big role as the Germans look to upset the Swedes and if Sweden can’t figure out their five-on-five scoring, there could be an upset here. Sweden has already lost once to an underdog, it could happen again against a physical German squad. But, in reality, Sweden is the heavyweight here.
USA vs. Latvia
The Americans came into this tournament with something to prove after a bit of a disappointing result last year, losing in the quarterfinals. This year’s squad has seen scoring come from up and down the lineup. Isaac Howard leads the team in scoring with six points thanks to a four-goal opening game against Canada but Logan Cooley and Cruz Lucius are one point back and they have six other players with at least four points through three games. They are truly a machine.
Latvia surprised many with an opening-game upset of Sweden but hasn’t fared all too well in the rest of their games. They were competitive against the Swiss but ultimately lost that game, setting up this matchup with the powerhouse Americans. They lack true difference makers at all three levels and do not have much of a scoring punch with only one player, Rodzers Bukarts, even netting a point-per-game.
This one should be the easiest to predict of any of the quarterfinal matchups, as the Americans are likely already setting their eyes on who their semifinal matchup could be. The U.S. squad’s smallest margin of victory was a four-goal win over Czechia. They lead the tournament by a wide margin with 24 goals for so far. With that said, Latvia surprised once at this tournament already. Could there be another? Probably not.