WORLD JUNIORS SEMI-FINALS PREVIEW

2024-01-03 · 4 min read · IIHF World Juniors/Hockey
Sweden and Czechia, USA and Finland

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This year's quarterfinals were filled with dramatics from Czechia getting revenge and upsetting the reigning champs Canada to Finland overcoming Slovakian in a slog that needed OT to be decided, as did Sweden and Switzerland. I have a feeling the despite the excitement of the quarters the best is yet to come.
Sweden vs Czechia
I am excited about this one as we have another revenge game on tap as this is a rematch of last year’s semifinals. Now the Swedes will be looking to avenge that 2-1 overtime loss to Czechia. The Swedes have been the more dominant team at this year’s world juniors, Sweden sports the top-ranked power play (42 percent; 8-for-19) and penalty kill (90 percent; 9-for-10) of the tournament, but Czechia has found ways to win, improving with each game and got the better of them last year.
Czechia is not going to go down easy though, as this team has no quit in them and seem to keep grinding no matter what. Jakub Stancl’s heroics against Canada were an example of just how far Czechia has come in recent years, with depth throughout the lineup and seemingly stronger coaching. Captain Jiri Kulich has been everything the Czechs could have asked for, scoring timely goals and leading the team in scoring en route to becoming the all-time leading scorer for Czechia at the World Junior Championship. If he can help Czechia to a gold medal, it’s a safe bet he would solidify himself as the best Czech player to ever play at the tournament.
Sweden had a tougher time in the quarters than anticipated against the Swiss but found a way to do what it needed to do. Hugo Havelid has been an absolute stud in net, sporting a 0.65 GAA and .966 save percentage this tournament. The undersized netminder elevates his game when playing in the national team sweater, and he made a number of notable saves late in the game as the Swiss pushed back against the host nation. Havelid’s play will need to continue being elite for the Swedes moving forward as the competition ramps up. Sweden has a bevy of scorers on offence, but Otto Stenberg needs to be highlighted as he has been deadly for the Swedes; showcasing his skill every time he is on the ice. Whether he is deflecting a shot from the high slot or sending a slick pass, he’s been a real threat for Sweden. Fellow 2023 first-rounder Theo Lindstein has been a revelation since being added as an injury replacement as well. Noah Ostlund and Axel Sandin Pelikka have been fantastic and come through in big moments, I could go one this team is super deep and plays smart hockey.
You have to expect that, much like last year, this will be a tightly contested game. Whoever takes advantage of their opponent's mistake late in the game will win this one. I could also see it coming down to which of Michal Hrabal or Hugo Havelid, have a better game. Whatever happens, I expect a physical, low scoring and very entertaining game as both teams try to get to the gold medal they’ve been in desperate pursuit of. Fun fact Sweden has won 14 of its past 15 against Czechia at the WJC
Prediction - Sweden 3-2 (OT)
USA vs Finland
Although the Americans have run through their competition, the Finns come into these semifinals having won two big games in a row. Team USA has been a powerhouse, overwhelming the competition, the United States has outscored the opposition 36-11 in five straight wins, including a 7-2 victory against Latvia in the quarterfinals.
while the Finns have found the classic structured game that's allowed them to consistently be better than the sum of their parts. While I get why the USA is favoured as they have won 11 of their past 15 WJC games against Finland, including 6-2 in last year's preliminary round. Despite this as I covered earlier Finland is always a bit of a wild card. You just can't be sure what you're going to get. Currently Finland is riding a three-game win streak after consecutive losses to Canada and Germany to begin the tournament. It has finished among the top three in three of the past five World Juniors (gold medal in 2019, silver in 2022, bronze in 2021).
The Finns are known for playing with a strong structure, sound defensive play, and a dedication to a physical brand of hockey that prioritises working the cycle and winning the board battles. They wear their opponents down and try to force mistakes. This group has had to slowly work their way to that typical Finnish game, but they seem to have gotten there now, and if they do it right it could give the Americans fits like it did Slovakia and Sweden. Lenni Hameenaho has been huge for Finland as a creator and seems to be heating up. Finnish Captain Jere Lassila has been arguably the team's most consistent player from the start of this tournament, even scoring the OT winner in the quarters
The Americans are the only undefeated team at the tournament, and they are coming off a thumping over Latvia. They’ve only been truly tested against Czechia when they needed a shootout to come away victorious. Aside from that game, the Americans have blown everyone out. They have waves of talent, unlike any team at this tournament. The Boston College trio of Will Smith, Ryan Leonard and Gabe Perreault has been a major force (to no one's surprise), including playing a key role against Latvia. On top of this Frank Nazar has been one of the best players in the tournament, this team is so deep up front and has 10 first round picks on their roster; it's easy to see the talent up front. On the back end, Lane Hutson has struggled with consistency, but it doesn't seem to matter especially with Zeev Buium and Seamus Casey stepping up. Last but not least Trey Augustine is an absolute stud between the pipes and backup Jacob Fowler is no slouch, it's hard to see a glaring weakness on this team.
This isn’t going to be an easy game for either team, but the Americans come in as the favourites and for good reason. Finland will need to elevate their game to another level, like they did against Sweden and Slovakia. Above all they may need some heroics from their netminder, Niklas Kokko as the Americans are bound to generate some quality chances. I took Finland too lightly last round and paid the price, so I don't want to make the same mistake here but it's tough to see them getting by the Americans without at least a couple good breaks.
Prediction - USA 5-3
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By: Chase Howard

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