It all comes down to this.
On Friday, Canada defeated Czechia in a game where the Canadians took the early lead and never looked back despite a push from Czechia in the second and third periods. Finland beat rival Sweden in a tight affair with one goal being scored in total, giving the Finns the chance at gold.
Let's look at how the gold medal game is set to shape up:
Bronze Medal Game: Sweden vs. Czechia
It almost seems fitting to have the tournaments two teams who have underwhelmed thus far compete for the bronze medal. Sweden has looked off all tournament long with a lack of finish from their forwards and lackadaisical defensive coverage leading to many of their best performances coming from goaltender Jesper Wallstedt. Fabian Lysell, Isak Rosen, Simon Edvinsson and company have all shown flashes of what makes them special prospects, but none of them have stood out. Sweden’s best skater has been defenseman Emil Andrae, who has been an offensive machine scoring in almost every game and has even had some lapses in his own end.
Czechia has largely been the same. They started the tournament with Red Wings prospect Jan Bednar in net who flamed out, so they finally moved to Tomas Suchanek who played well throughout and helped them beat the Americans in the quarterfinal. Their skaters have been fairly mundane, with captain Jan Mysak being their most consistent playdriver. Jiri Kulich and David Jiricek have shown flashes but aside from that, the Czech team has been looking a bit lost in just about every game outside of their quarterfinal matchup.
What we have is two talented teams who have yet to play to their potential. On paper, the Swedes have the better roster. They have a first-round all-world goaltender in Jesper Wallstedt and multiple first-round picks littering the roster. They have only two undrafted players on their entire roster, and they're both 20. On the other hand, the Czech squad has about half of their roster undrafted, despite having multiple first-rounders.
However, we have seen better performances from the Czech team. They played an impressive game against the Americans, beating them in the quarters with a full team effort and they found ways to push back against Canada when they played them as well. Czechia finally seems to have found their groove, even if they couldn’t convert that into a gold medal berth. Sweden has looked disinterested and unenthused to be at the tournament times. They seem to come and go a bit too often.
It sounds like a broken record, but for the Swedes to win this game and come away with a medal despite their best efforts not to claim one at times, they need to get their act together. The Swedes have received excellent netminding from Wallstedt, they need to get performances from their top-end talent such as Lysell, Edvinsson, and Rosen to go along with it. If they can put 60 minutes of good - not even great - hockey together, they shouldn’t go home empty-handed.
Czechia has been building up as the tournaments gone on and they seem poised to have one of their better games against Sweden in a game where they know they are the underdog. Czechia seems to thrive when the expectations are low and that’s what they have done since the elimination rounds have begun. If they can get good goaltending from Suchaneck as they have, Mysak, Kulich, and Jiricek continue to play well as they have recently. They can get a timely goal from depth scorers such as Matyas Sapovaliv or Michal Gut, then Czechia could very well head home with a bronze medal.
Gold Medal Game: Canada vs. Finland
With the Americans upset in the quarters, the clear two best teams remaining have made it to the gold medal game. Canada and Finland have throttled teams at times, and they have locked things down when they needed to. Both teams have seen some big performances from players who were expected to play big roles and they’ve also received some surprise performances from depth players. Both participants in the gold medal game deserve to be here.
Canada has been the most dominant team thus far. They have an absolutely loaded roster, highlighted by Mason McTavish and Connor Bedard. The duo has been the driving force behind the Canadians offensive onslaught throughout the tournament, but they have been far from the only big game players to show up. Even when they were split up on Friday, they looked fantastic on their own.
Will Cuylle has worked his way up the lineup, playing a physical game while bringing a nice goal-scoring touch, earning time next to Canada’s dynamic duo. Logan Stankoven has been a firecracker, attacking play at both ends of the ice and making his mark on games even when he hasn’t found the scoresheet. Olen Zellweger has been a stud on the blueline, driving the team's ability to create from the blueline and break out of the defensive zone. From Kent Johnson and Brennan Othmann to Donovan Sebrango and Ridly Greig, the list of Canadians who have stood out is long.
On the Finnish side of things, they have looked great themselves. The Finns have had big performances from Joakim Kemell and Roby Jarventie to give them one of the most vaunted power plays. Roni Hirvonen and Aatu Raty have been a handful to deal with at five-on-five, using their blend of skill and power along with non-stop motors to pester teams into mistakes they have capitalized on.
The Finnish blueline has also been fantastic. Joni Jurmo may not have the counting stats, but he’s been one of the most efficient defenders at exiting the defensive zone, using his feet to escape pressure and move up ice or draw in forecheckers before threading a pass up ice. Topi Niemela and Aleksi Heimosalmi have been excellent in transition and in the offensive zone, making life easy on everyone as they’ve kept pucks in the offensive zone and found teammates in excellent scoring positions. However, it's Kasper Puutio who leads the Finnish blueliners in scoring. He has used his shot from the blue line as a weapon while also being an excellent facilitator from the top of the zone.
Both Dylan Garand in the Canadian net and Leevi Merilainen in Finland’s crease have done their jobs with little hiccups but no major mishaps. If both teams receive the steady and stable goaltending expected, that area of the game should be a wash.
For the Finns to win this game, they need to continue to blend the typical structure that the Finnish national teams at all levels play within with the skill and flair that this junior team possesses thanks to their skilled players. Kemell, Jarventie, Raty and Hirvonen need to continue to play mature, high-paced games that force mistakes on the forecheck. At the same time, their defenders must move pucks quickly and avoid letting the Canadians do the same. If the Finns are going to win, they need to neutralize the Canadian’s speed by forcing them to play along the boards and in their own zone.
Canada needs to continue to dominate and adapt. They have all the skill and speed that have allowed them to succeed and the physicality that has allowed them to adapt. The loss of Ridly Greig will be a big one as he seems to have been a bit of a sparkplug for the Canadians in that regard. But they have shown the ability to adapt. Cuylle and Othmann can provide some of the pest factor and physicality that Greig brought.
The Canadians need to play to their potential and jump on the Finns early. Force them to play loosey-goosey, run-and-gun hockey. If they can do that, the gold medal should be theirs.