We're down to eight countries who are still alive for a gold medal at this year's IIHF World Hockey Championship. With Tuesday being a day before the championship round begins, there have been a few surprises thus far as upsets and surprises have dominated the storylines from this year's tournament. The host Slovaks, for example, are not among the eight countries vying for tournament gold, as Germany had themselves a whale of a tournament thus far. Switzerland is also not among the best eight countries as Norway bested them in this tournament's qualification round. Who would have thought that Slovakia and Switzerland would be on the outside looking in when this tournament started? Not me, that's for sure. Especially since the tournament is being played in Slovakia! But here's how the competition for the gold medal will be played out beginning on Wednesday.
The Czechs have been getting outstanding goaltending from Atlanta's Ondrej Pavelec in leading the Czech republic team to a 5-0-0 record in the tournament and first-place in Group E. Pavelec has a microscopic 1.40 GAA, one shutout, and a .945 save percentage. In short, Pavelec has been spectacular. Patrik Elias leads the way with seven points, and the goals have compliments of Milan Michalek with four, Tomas Plekanec with four, and Michal Frolik with three. Jaromir Jagr is an impressive +6 thus far in the tournament, showing that the Czech's star players have bought into sound two-way play.
The USA has had some problems with the men in the blue paint. While Al Montoya looked like he might take the reins, his stats have slipped as he has a 2-1 record, a 2.60 GAA, and an .871 save percentage. Ty Conklin has fared no better with a 1-2 record, a 3.85 GAA, and a .889 save percentage. Needless to say, American goaltending has to be better against the powerful Czechs. The 3-3 American squad finished fourth in Group F, far lower than they would have liked to finish. Derek Stepan of the New York Rangers leads the offence with seven points, and Craig Smith has three goals to lead the Americans in that department. The Americans have a balanced attack, but they seem to give up goals in bunches. Once that happens, they don't play catch-up very well.
I'm going to go with the favorite in this game as I feel the Czech Republic will beat the Americans to advance to the semi-final. The Achilles' heel of the Americans has been the goaltending, and the balanced attack of the Czechs will most likely drive the Americans crazy.
Sweden finished second in Group F on the strength of their balanced play. Viktor Fasth went 4-0 in taking over for Erik Ersberg. Fasth finished the qualification with a 0.50 GAA, three shutouts, and a .983 save percentage. Ersberg was 0-2 with a 3.84 GAA and a .873 save percentage. Sweden's balanced attack is evident in their plus/minus ratings as no player has a rating below even. David Petrasek, Magnus Paajarvi, and Patrik Berglund lead the way with five points each, and Berglund leads the team in goals with five. The Swedes get great contributions from their blueliners as well. Staffan Kronwall and David Petrasek are leading the way in points from the blueline. Sweden will be a difficult foe.
Germany is kind of a wild card in that they great offence in some games to help their goaltending, but are shut down in other games. Dennis Endras is 1-3 in the tournament, has a 3.05 GAA, one shutout, and a .894 save percentage. Dimitri Patzold is 1-0 with a 3.00 GAA and a .921 save percentage. Marcel Muller has five points for the Germans, but have four more players with four points: John Tripp, Kevin Lavallee, Frank Hordler, and Felix Schutz. Schutz and Tripp both have three goals in the tournament to lead the team. This team finished third in Group E, but were a -2 in goal differential.
While Germany scored a 2-0 upset win over Russia in the tournament's opening game, they nearly took Finland to an extra frame in a 5-4 loss, but then struggled against Denmark's defensive shell in losing by a 4-3 overtime score. Sweden is a much more complete team than Denmark and has outscored Finland, so it would take a small miracle for Germany to win. I don't see any miracles happening on Wednesday, so I'll stick with the Tre Kronor in this one.
Finland finished second in Group E, and really did so with two goaltenders. Petri Vehanen and Teemu Lassila have nearly identical statistics. Vehanen has a 1.73 GAA and a .919 save percentage while Lassila has a 2.19 GAA and a .913 save percentage. It's more of a case of 1A and 1B for Finland, so I'll assume that Vehanen will start against Norway on Thursday. The scoring has predominantly come from three men: Jarkko Immonen, Tuomo Ruutu, and Mikko Koivu. Immonen leads the team with seven points, and both he and Ruutu share the goal-scoring lead with five apiece. If you remove those three players, that takes 12 of Finland's 18 goals off the board - not a good stat when three men make up two-thirds of your goal-scoring.
Norway has been riding goaltender Lars Haugen all through the tournament thus far. Norway finished in third-place in Group F on the strength of Haugen's goaltending and the defence-by-committee style of coverage they employ. Haugen has played every minute in the blue paint for Norway, compiling a 3-2 record, a 2.48 GAA, one shutout, and a .933 save percentage. Up front, Mathis Olimb leads with nine points while Marius Holtet has six goals to his credit. Norway has two decent scoring lines that can put the puck in the net, and they really surprise teams with their overall speed.
I'm going out on a limb for this one: Norway wins this game. Haugen has played extremely well, and Norway is content to be patient and capitalize on mistakes. If the Norwegians can shut down Immonen, Ruutu, and Koivu, they should be able to force other players with less offensive talent into mistakes. Norway beat Sweden 5-4 in overtime, beat Switzerland 3-2, and scared the Canadians in a 3-2 loss. Norway can do this, and I think they'll shock Finland on Thursday.
Canada earned first-place in Group F with their 5-0 record through the qualification round. Goaltending has been solid for Canada as both James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier have been good overall and spectacular when they had to be. Reimer is 3-0 with a 2.04 GAA and a .920 save percentage while Bernier is 2-0 with a 2.00 GAA and a .923 save percentage. John Tavares has carried the team offensively with nine points and five goals, but the Canadians are getting a balanced attack from other sources: Spezza, Skinner, Nash, and Neal. Defensively, Brent Burns and Alex Pietrangelo have chipped in from the blueline, so there are a number of weapons that the Canadians can put on the ice at any time.
Russia, surprisingly, finished the qualification round in fourth-place in Group E. Evgeni Nabokov is 2-1 and looks rusty after having not played for the majority of 2011. His 3.60 GAA and .880 save percentage are nowhere near his career NHL averages. His backup, Konstantin Barulin, hasn't fared any better. Barulin is 1-2 with a 2.21 GAA and a .926 save percentage, but his record tells you that Russia, for all its firepower, is missing its target on a consistent basis. Danis Zaripov leads the team with six points and Ilya Nikulin has the team lead in goals with three. Alexander Ovechkin has yet to record a point and Ilya Kovalchuk hasn't scored a goal yet. In short, Russia's World Championship team is being carried by KHL players once again.
While it seems homer-ish of me to do this, I have to stick with Canada in this game. The Canadians have a much more balanced attack, have a much more aggressive forecheck, and they have better goaltending. Russia, for all its talent, should not be given a free pass, especially since we saw what happened two years ago at the World Championship and at the past World Junior Championships. But Canada's firepower and stingy goaltending should prove better on Thursday to help the Canadians advance.
The IIHF World Championship Semi-Finals will be played on Friday. The winner of the Czech-USA game will meet the winner of the Sweden-Germany game in the early game. The late game will have the winner of the Finland-Norway game playing the winner of the Canada-Russia game.
The IIHF World Championship Bronze Medal Game goes Sunday afternoon while the Gold Medal Game will be played Sunday night. We'll have more updates at that time!
Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!