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WJC Roundup: Russia Tops USA, Finland, Slovakia Open Strong

A thrilling contest between Russia and USA highlighted a solid first day of action, while Finland held on just enough to beat a tired German squad. Plus, Slovakia kicked off the tournament with a shutout over Switzerland to spice up Group A play.

USA Battles Back, But Big Second Period the Difference for Russia

In what was considered the game of the day, there was definitely some great moments. But a big second period by the Russians took the steam away from the Americans, and that's exactly what the Big Red Machine wanted as they skated away with a 5-3 victory to kick off Group B play.

The Russians got off to a hot start, taking a 1-0 lead at 8:07 after leading the shots 4-0. Vasili Ponomaryov beat Spencer Knight by tipping in Artemi Knyazev's high shot to open the scoring early, but Cam York would send a shot past Yaroslav Askarov from the point six minutes later to tie things up heading into the first intermission.

But things quickly went from bad to worse for the Americans - and specifically Knight. Knight allowed four goals on 12 shots before getting pulled, including three goals on four shots. Early in the second, Maxim Groshev sent the puck down to Zakhar Bardakov on a breakaway, with Bardakov scoring a snapshot from the hashmarks to make it 2-1. Then, a pair of giveaways, including one from Knight himself, led to Ponomaryov getting a hat-trick, ending Knight's net after 32:15 of play in favor of Dustin Wolf. 

“It’s definitely hard to come in off the bench," Wolf said after the game. "Knighter’s a tremendous person. In the locker room it was more of ‘hey man, keep going, you’re a tremendous athlete and person.’ I know he’ll bounce back.”

The Americans kept pace with the Russians, and even took the shot advantage late in the game. John Farinacci scored just before the halfway point of the third to cut Russia's lead in half and it seemed to spark a potential comeback effort. The Americans pulled their goalie with under three minutes to go and it worked - Trevor Zegras, who led the way with nine assists a year ago - scored his first World Junior Championship goal with a wrister from the point, hitting the post and beating Askarov to bring USA within one. 

Unfortuantely for the Americans, Askarov held on and Yegor Chinakhov scored an empty-netter to help Russia take the victory - a win that could be the difference if a tie-breaker is needed to determine Group B placement heading into the quarter-final.

Tired Germans Offered a Fight, but Finland Too Strong

On paper, it shouldn't have been close. And when it was all said and done, it wasn't on the shot counter - Finland had a 50-22 advantage. But you have to give Germany credit for at least giving Finland a fight through half the game with just 14 skaters, even trailing 3-2 at one point. But in the end, Finland - with a full lineup and a much stronger group overall - came away with the 5-3 win in a game that could have been much worse.

“We tried everything at the end and it was a great effort from our team," German coach Tobias Abstreiter said following the game. "It’s unbelievable. We came together. It’s a good sign of the team chemistry. It’s a good foundation for a successful tournament.”

Finland had the first 13 shots of the game, including one from Anton Lundell that led to an early 1-0 lead just 3:38 into the game. The Germans started to show some life and limited Finland's high-end scoring chances, but Aku Raty scored with 12 seconds left in the first to double the score after German netminder Arno Tiefensee lost sight of the puck after making a quick save. 

Mikael Pyyhtia took the momentum and ran with it in the second period, scoring just 1:39 into the middle frame to extend Finland's lead to three. But two goals on three German shots by Samuel Dube and Tim Stutzle gave the team some life, all of a sudden putting them within one with half the game to go. 

Unfortunately, it went all downhill from there. Topi Miemela scored 1:18 after that with a screened shot from the point. Two minutes after that, Henri Nikkanen scored a power-play goal after banking a pass from the corner off a German defender and in. It was mostly bad luck at that point, but it also was Finland's 31st shot of the game - giving them nearly a shot per minute through 33:51 of action.

Germany wasn't out of it completely. At 48:13, Stutle took the puck into the zone and did his famous play of skating around the net, drawing defenders out of position and getting a shot on net. It worked, as Florian Elias grabbed the rebound and made it 5-3 late in the contest. It wasn't enough, though, as Germany ultimately fell in the contest, but given the circumstances, Germany put on a much better effort than most people gave them credit for.

Nine Germans played at least 20 minutes on Friday, with Stutzle leading all forwards with 26:01, while defenseman Simon Gnyp was No. 1 overall with 28:53. Defensemen Santeri Hatakka and Ville Heinola were the only Finns to hit the 20-minute mark.

“It’s a tough situation but in the end you can’t change it," Stutzle said. "I think we played a great game today and I’m proud of the guys.”

Faith Prevails for Slovakia

In a game that could determine a crucial quarter-final contest down the line, Slovakia edged out Switzerland 1-0 in a quiet game to open up the tournament.

Roman Faith had the lone goal of the contest with six minutes to go. With full momentum, 2022 NHL draft prospect Simon Nemec found Faith alone in the slot. Faith fired home the shot off the post and in, beating Thibault Fatton to end the deadlock.

Switzerland had a pair of power plays late in the contest but couldn't find a way to beat goaltender Simon Latkoczky. Latkoczky, who was a surprise starter ahead of Samuel Hlavaj, made a game-saving stop by diving across to stop defenseman. Latkockzy had a perfect 28-save contest, his first full game with the U-20 team, with the HK Dukla Trencin product previously backing up Hlavaj at the U-18 World Championship two years ago. The shutout also marked the first perfect effort by a Slovak goaltender at the World Junior Championship since Denis Godla snagged a 3-0 win over the Czech Republic in 2015.

The win was a big one for Slovakia, who now has an edge in what will likely be a three-team battle to avoid missing out on the quarter-finals with Switzerland and Germany. Slovakia will face Canada on Sunday in what should be the toughest game of the preliminary round for them, while Switzerland will match up against Finland earlier that afternoon.

Raska Suspended

Late on Christmas Day, the IIHF announced that Czech Republic forward Adam Raska was issued a one-game suspension for boarding during his team's exhibition contest against Slovakia on Wednesday. 

With 16 seconds remaining in the game, Raska collided hard with Slovakian defensemen Simon Becar. Becar was slow to get back to the bench, but did return to play against Switzerland on Friday. Raska will miss the Czech Republic's first game against Sweden on Saturday but is eligible to return on Sunday against Russia to wrap up the weekend's action.

Three Stars:

1. Vasili Ponomaryov, C (RUS): He started the game listed on Russia's fourth line but with a hat-trick that chased star goaltending prospect Spencer Knight on net, he played more like a game-changer.

2. Tim Stutzle, C (GER): A goal and an assist for a German team that didn't have the manpower to put out a full lineup. Despite that, he was the best skater on the ice, period.

3. Simon Latockzy, G (SVK): A 28-save shutout against the Swiss puts Slovakia in a good spot early in the tournament. Now the real test begins against Canada.


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