12.31.2011

2012 IIHF World Junior Championships - Day 5 Preview

Photo via HHOF-IIHF Images
Today is the last day of preliminary round play for the 2012 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship, and after yesterday's exciting games, very little remains to be decided today. On today's schedule we have FIN vs. CZE at 4PM, SVK vs. SUI at 6PM, USA vs. CAN at 8PM, and RUS vs. SWE at 10PM (all times  in Eastern Standard Time). The current standings...

GROUP A

TEAM
GP
W
OTW
OTL
L
GD
PTS
STATUS
1.
RUS
3
3
0
0
0
19
9
MEDAL ROUND
2.
SWE
3
2
1
0
0
14
8
MEDAL ROUND
3.
SUI
3
1
0
1
1
-2
4
RELEGATION / MEDAL ROUND
4.
SVK
3
1
0
0
2
-8
3
RELEGATION / MEDAL ROUND
5,
LAT
4
0
0
0
4
-23
0
RELEGATION

GROUP B

TEAM
GP
W
OTW
OTL
L
GD
PTS
STATUS
1.
CAN
3
3
0
0
0
20
9
MEDAL ROUND
2.
FIN
3
2
0
0
1
5
6
MEDAL ROUND
3.
CZE
3
2
0
0
1
5
6
MEDAL ROUND
4.
USA
3
1
0
0
2
2
3
RELEGATION
5,
DEN
4
0
0
0
4
-32
0
RELEGATION

... mean that tonight's games are mostly for pride and seeding, though the Switzerland/Slovakia game still gives the Slovaks a chance to make the medal round. Now for the previews.
FINLAND vs. CZECH REPUBLIC, 4PM EST
Photo via HHOF-IIHF Images
Both Team Finland and Team Czech Republic have already qualified for the medal round, following their back-to-back upsets of Team USA, but today's game still is a must-win for both teams. The winner of this matchup gets to play the winner of the Switzerland/Slovakia game, while the loser is faced with the daunting task of most likely playing the loser of the Russia/Sweden game - obviously, the former is much preferred. Over the course of the tournament, Team Finland and Team Czech Republic have had relatively similar levels of success - both have a +5 goal differential, though Finland has scored 15 goals to the Czechs' 12. Statistically, their offenses and defenses are nearly identical, though Finland has a slight advantage across the board; a slightly higher shooting percentage (13.51% vs. 12.12%), powerplay efficiency (26.67% vs. 23.08%), and penalty killing percentage (77.78% vs. 76.47%), though the Czechs have received better goaltending, with an goals against average of 2.33, compared to the 3.33 GAA of the Finns. Speaking of goaltending, the Czechs will presumably start Petr Mrazek in net again, who was sensational against the Americans on Friday. In net for Finland should be Sami Aittokallio, who was even better against the Americans on Wednesday than Mrazek was on Friday, with a .974 save percentage (compared to Mrazek's .963). Both teams also have impressive goal scorers, as 3 players from each team are in the top-15 for WJC goal scoring; Teemu Pulkkinen (4 goals), Joel Armia (3 goals), & Miikka Salomaki (3 goals) for the Finns and Tomas Filippi (3 goals), Tomas Hertl (3 goals), and Petr Holik (3 goals) for the Czechs. In the end, special teams might be the deciding factor in this game, as while both teams have similar powerplay and penalty kill success rates, Team Czech Republic has the second most penalty minutes in the tournament with 65, while Team Finland is the least penalized, only have 22 PIMs. In what will likely be a closely and hard fought game, a Finnish powerplay unit that, unlike the Americans, avoids squandering PP time could prove to be the difference maker. 

SWITZERLAND vs. SLOVAKIA, 6PM EST
Photo via HHOF-IIHF Images
Team Slovakia has one chance at avoiding relegation play, and that is to beat Team Switzerland in regulation. Even going to overtime eliminates them, thanks to the extra point that the Swiss picked up in their shootout loss to Team Sweden. Seeing how the two teams have played against the Swedes (probably the 3rd best team in the WJC this year) leads one to expect a victory for Team Switzerland - they shocked Sweden by taking them to OT before losing in the shootout (final score: 4-3 Sweden), while Team Slovakia lost 9-1 to the Swedes yesterday. Unless they have a miracle, Slovakia looks to end up heading to relegation.

CANADA vs. USA, 8PM EST
Photo via HHOF-IIHF images
After a disastrous three day stretch for Team USA, featuring loses to both Team Finland and Team Czech Republic, they are now stuck in relegation, leaving the marquee New Year's Eve USA-Canada matchup as a meaningless game. However, pride is still on the line. Team USA would love to atone for their disappointing performances with a strong performance against the Canadians. The Canadians, of course, would love to soundly beat the Americans as well, and based on their strong play so far this seems like the likely result. But, as a rivalry game, anything can happen... and probably will. Perhaps this will be the game where America's offense finally starts putting the puck into the net consistently, even though they're too late to make a meaningful impact in Team USA's performance in the 2012 WJC.

RUSSIA vs. SWEDEN, 10PM EST
Photo via HHOF-IIHF Images
Two of the top teams in the 2012 WJC collide to determine who gets to have a bye until the semifinals of the medal round. Team Russia most recently exploded offensively against Denmark, where their captain, Evgeny Kuznetsov, finally broke out with 9 points (3 goals, 6 assists) as Russia scored 14 goals and received a shutout performance from goalie Andrei Vasilevski, who has been perfect in net for Russia so far. Team Sweden, meanwhile, is coming off a 9-1 rout of Team Slovakia where the offense continued to roll. Sweden has four skaters in the top 10 in points scoring, the most of any team heading in to today's action, and their +14 goal differential only trails Russia and Canada. However, their defense has let in 8 goals, compared to the single goal that has pierced Team Russia - this could prove to be a problem, as Russia is easily the best offense that Sweden has played or likely will play. Regardless of the outcome, this should be a fascinating game to watch, as these teams are both among the best in the tournament.

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