The Medal Round Arrives at the World Juniors
The group stage is over, and the medal round of the 2017-18 World Junior Championship in Buffalo is set to start tomorrow with the four quarterfinal games! Team Russia duly advanced to the knockout games, but head coach Valery Bragin’s squad can hardly be said to have taken the easy route, and there must be some serious concern about their chances of making the podium. Read on, for a look back at the preliminary stage, and a look ahead to tomorrow’s quarterfinal (you can also check out the piece here from last week on Russia’s World Juniors roster)!
Team Russia’s 2017-18 World Juniors did not get off to the desired start — at all. Despite a 38-24 SoG advantage, a furious late-game comeback against Czechia was not enough to overturn a 5-2 third-period deficit; the young Russians went down to defeat by 5-4 in the end. Coach Bragin’s group was then made to sweat by Team Switzerland; a goal by Artur Kayumov broke a 2-2 tie before a pair of late markers eased the tension in what finished as a 5-2 Russian win. The third game of the tournament, against Belarus, finished with the same result and score. This one, however, was more routine, as Team Russia led 3-0 on the scoreboard and 29-9 on the shot-clock after two periods before easing home from there.
Russia’s fourth and final match of the group stage, against powerful Sweden, turned out to be a barn-burner. Twice in the early going, Sweden jumped ahead by a goal, but twice Russia found an equalizer (Dmitry Sokolov and Klim Kostin the scorers). The 2-2 tie after 20 minutes held up until early in the third period, when the Swedes once again pulled in front. Nothing daunted, Team Russia duly tied things up through Alexei Polodyan. Overtime, as they say, solved nothing, and the game went to a shootout. There, it was Oskar Steén who scored the key goal to get the Tre Kronor a 4-3 victory. And thus Team Russia ended the group stage with a 2-2 record, and seven points.
So, as I said, a bumpy passage through the preliminary stage, and the net result has been a third-place finish in Group B and tomorrow’s tough quarterfinal date with the host American team. Russia’s streak of a medal at seven straight World Juniors is very much under threat at this point. The U.S. team has had a shock of its own at this tournament, losing 3-2 to a pesky Slovakian side, but recovered from the upset to defeat Canada (via the shootout) and Finland. The American side also can boast the services of the tournament’s current leading scorer, Casey Mittelstadt (4 gp, 4-5-9), who has half again as many points as any other player right now. Team Russia, obviously, will need to be at its very best to achieve the semifinals and a chance at that eighth straight medal.
What has gone wrong, and what has gone right for Russia so far? We will start with the bad news. The Russian powerplay has struggled mightily so far, tallying just once in 16 opportunities for a 6.25% “success” rate; only Slovakia, scoreless in 11 tries with the man advantage, has been worse at this tournament. Indeed, Russia’s scoring has been, though far from dreadful, no better than mediocre in Buffalo; the team ranks fifth out of ten in goals scored, with 17. I think it is fair to say that more offence was expected from players like Artyom Manukyan (4 gp, 0-2-2) and German Rubtsov (4 gp, 1-3-4).
And Team Russia’s goaltending has struggled overall. Vladimir Sukhachyov replaced the struggling Alexei Melnichuk after two periods of the tournament-opener against Czechia, and has played every minute since. However, his sv% of .892 (nine goals against on 83 shots) ranks him just seventh among goalies at these World Juniors. Here at least there may be cause for optimism (beyond the obvious issue of small sample size): Sukhachyov was sterling against the Swedes, stopping 40 of 43 shots, and might be rounding into form at precisely the right moment.
There has also been some concern, or at least puzzlement, over the performance of Andrei Svechnikov. The Barrie Colts forward is widely expected to be among the very early picks at the 2018 NHL draft, and many fans were looking forward to seeing him on the ice with the presumptive first overall choice, Swedish defenceman Rasmus Dahlin. That contest, at least, has gone Dahlin’s way completely; he leads the tournament in assists with six, is tied for second in points (4 gp, 0-6-6), and has generally been spectacular. Svechnikov, meanwhile, has posted five assists but no goals so far.
There are some things, however, to keep in mind with regards to Svechnikov’s performance in Buffalo. First of all, Svechnikov is only 17, and making his first appearance at the World Juniors (Dahlin, it must be admitted, is a month younger than Svechnikov, but this is the Swedish rearguard’s second trip to the WJC). By comparison, Kirill Kaprizov’s dominant performance at last year’s World Juniors (7 gp, 9-3-12) came at the age of 19, and in his second trip to the tournament. In Kaprizov’s first, at a year older than Svechnikov is now, he scored three points in seven games. Secondly, Svechnikov has in fact done pretty well in Buffalo; his five assists, tops on the Russian team, have come despite being kept on a short leash in terms of ice-time by coach Bragin. That raises some questions of its own, but the “long story short” of it is that Svechnikov will be fine.
And despite the uneven performances, and the third-place group-stage finish, there have been some other bright spots as well. I have already mentioned Sukhachyov’s performance in net against Sweden, and he and his team will be hoping he has another such game in him against the U.S. (assuming he gets the start on Tuesday, which he probably will). The forward line of Svechnikov, Klim Kostin, and Georgy Ivanov seems to have found some nice chemistry, with Kostin scoring four goals and six points to tie for second at the tournament in both categories. And while his usual linemates Manukyan and Rubtsov have struggled to find the net at least a little bit (see above), forward Artur Kayumov is putting together a nice World Juniors. Generally a complementary scorer, albeit a decent one, rather than a feature talent, the 19-year-old from Lokomotiv Yaroslavl has scored 3-2-5 in the tournament’s four games.
Finally, I would be remiss not to mention the performance turned in so far by hulking defenceman Vladislav Syomin. The 19-year-old SKA St. Petersburg prospect is more known for his hitting and defensive play than his scoring (see photo above), but he is better at finding the net than he is often given credit for. He has two goals and two assists so far at the WJC, and is tied for second on his team at +5.
So roll on Tuesday, and the quarterfinal! Team Russia’s American opponents must be viewed as the favourites in this one, but not prohibitively so; Russia is certainly capable of taking this game, particularly if they can get the powerplay going (turning young Svechnikov loose a bit more might be a good idea too). In any case, the victor will advance to the Thursday’s semifinal against the winner of the Sweden-Slovakia quarterfinal, with the medal games to follow on Friday (the losing quarterfinalists are finished for the tournament; there are no placement games beyond the bronze medal match at the World Juniors).
Thank you for reading, and a very Happy New Year to all! We will update the World Juniors when all is said and done for the tournament, however it turns out.