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World Junior Championship notebook: Canada downs USA in thriller, Sweden's streak still alive

The World Junior Championship opened with another instant classic between two North American rivals and Sweden's winning streak remains intact. Plus, two back-and-forth battles kicked things off in style.

Special teams the difference as Canada tops USA in exciting opening match
There was no better way to kick off the tournament than having two of the tournament's biggest rivals open things up. And, as expected, the meeting between the Canadians and Americans didn't disappoint with Canada taking a 6-4 victory in a hotly contested affair.

Penalties killed Canada in the opening 20 minutes, with power play goals by Shane Pinto and Arthur Kaliyev putting the Americans up by two early. Special teams were just as important in the second. Barrett Hayton and Nolan Foote both fired hard shots over Spencer Knight's glove on the power play, with Connor McMichael potting one at full strength to give Canada the 3-2 advantage heading into the final frame.

The goals didn't stop in the third. Hayton scored on the power play at 50:47, only to have Nicholas Robertson snipe one two minutes later, one of the rare even-strength goal in the contest. Four minutes later, Pinto had his second – with the man advantage, of course – but Alexis Lafreniere scored just seven seconds after the ensuing faceoff to restore Canada's lead. Later, Lafreniere won a puck battle with little more than one minute left to send Ty Dellandrea streaking down the ice on an empty net, topping off Canada's victory at 6-4.

It was Canada's first win in the past five tries against the Americans, and with Group B featuring one of the strongest fields in recent history, Canada's win was big for the team's momentum. The Americans will look to put one in the win column against Germany on Friday.

Swedes keep round-robin streak alive with OT win over Finland
Sweden will have a chance for its 50th consecutive win on Saturday after defeating Finland 3-2 in overtime.

The action was intense in Trinec, with Colorado Avalanche prospect Justus Annunen stopping all 15 Sweden shots in the opening period. Patrik Puistola helped Annunen out by scoring the first goal of the game, knocking in Anttoni Honka's feed on the man advantage to score the lone goal in the first period.

The Swedes scored early in the second with what can only be described as the early favorite for goal of the tournament. Just as he has done twice before in the Swedish League, Vancouver Canucks prospect Nils Hoglander scooped the puck up and corralled it past Annunen, tying the game up with a brilliant lacrosse goal. Kristian Tanus restored the Finns' lead during a scramble, putting pressure on Sweden to keep its round-robin winning streak alive.

In extra time, Alex Holtz – one member of Sweden's 'Terror Twins' – gave Sweden the victory. Holtz received a pass just inside the zone and fired it high glove on Annunen, putting Sweden's streak at 49 games. That streak dates back to 2006, when Holtz, the OT hero, was just four years old.

Czechs stun Russia in high-scoring affair

Expectations were high for the Czech Republic on home ice, but few predicted the team to stun Russia – a gold-medal favorite – on the opening day of the tournament. With a 4-3 win, the Czech Republic got a valuable three points that could relieve any worries about the Czechs falling to the relegation round.

The Czechs started with goals from Simon Kubicek and Jan Mysak before the midway mark of the first, but Yegor Zamula and Vasili Podkolzin tied the affair before intermission. The back-and-forth contest saw Matej Blumel and Zamula score for the Czechs and Russians respectively, but a slew of Russian penalties resulted in a lack of sustained momentum for the pre-game favorites. Jan Jenik scored on a two-man advantage before the end of the second to ultimately hand the Czechs the win, and a pair of late Russian penalties dissolved any hope in the dying minutes.

The loss means Russia is unlikely to win Group B, not with Canada and the United States still on the schedule. The Czech Republic plays Germany Saturday, and if the Czech can go 2-0, that means Germany will be forced to beat one of the tournament powerhouses to avoid the relegation round.

Swiss erase early deficit to tackle Kazakhstan
This game had major bearings on the relegation round. If Kazakhstan was able to pull off the upset victory, those three points, plus the head-to-head advantage, would help them when it mattered most.

But despite tying the game up on three occasions, the Kazakhs couldn't take the lead at any point and fell short in the third period. Matthew Berboon had two goals, while defenseman David Aebischer generated many of the Swiss scoring chances and had two recorded two helpers. Jeremi Gerber, Gian-Marco Wetter and Joel Salzgerber each had goals for Switzerland, while Maxim Murosov had two of Kazakhstan's three goals. Ruslan Demin had the Kazakhs' other marker.

The most notable moment of the contest was how Salzberger scored. His shot from outside the zone deflected off the backboards and bounced between the legs of Kazakhstan's goaltender Vladislav Nurek. Nurek turned and knocked the puck in his own net, giving the Swiss the 3-2 goal. That was a turning point. Had he stopped that simple opportunity, Kazakhstan may have had an upset on its hands.

Kazakhstan's next game will be important. A loss to Slovakia could put Kazakhstan's quarterfinal hopes out of reach.

Draft Watch
Russian goaltender Yaroslav Askarov, projected to go in the top 10 of the draft this year, was beaten four times on his the first 12 shots he faced. Askarov, 17, is the youngest goaltender in the tournament, but he couldn't overcome early jitters and saw his night end with four goals against on 17 shots. Given the pressure, this won't help his hopes of wrangling the starting spot away from 19-year-old Amir Miftakhov.

Three Stars

  1. Alexis Lafreniere, Canada (1G, 3A, 4P) – The difference-maker for Canada. Scored the game-winning goal and authored the play that put the game away.
  2. Shane Pinto, USA (2G, 1A, 3P) – If the Americans managed to hold on, it would have been for the fantastic play of Pinto. Did everything right despite early criticisms of his heavy usage against Canada.
  3. Yegor Zamula, Russia (2G, 0A, 2P) – Not the result the Russians wanted, but Zamula was important in his team's comeback hopes.

On Tap

Friday — Dec. 27, 2018
Kazakhstan vs. Slovakia, 9 a.m. ET
U.S. vs. Germany, 1 p.m. ET

Saturday – Dec. 28, 2018
Slovakia vs. Finland, 9 a.m. ET
Czech Republic vs. Germany, 9 a.m. ET
Canada vs. Russia, 1 p.m. ET
Switzerland vs. Sweden, 1 p.m. ET

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