IIHF World Championships Quarters: Russia vs USA, Finland vs Sweden

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Quarterfinal #1: RUSSIA vs. USA

Russia’s Big Red Machine is back, and woe be to quarterfinal opponent USA. The Americans had a chance to stay clear of Ovechkin, Malkin, and Kucherov until the gold-medal game with a win over Canada, but the fading Yanks couldn’t muster a goal versus Canada, and unlike other world championship squads, there is no cavalry in sight.

The team in red known as ROSS-SEE-YA is a boat. “They look more like an Olympic squad than a Worlds team,” tweeted ESPN hockey writer Chris Peters from Slovakia. That might be an understatement. To be honest, Malkin and Ovechkin did not assert themselves in the round robin until their final game blowout of Sweden. The 2019 Worlds has been quite a stage for the two Nikitas: Kucherov and Gusev, linemates and besties since their prepubescent days with the Belye Medvedi (Polar Bears) sport club in Moscow. They have combined for an astounding 27 points by playing keep away, give and go, and dangle-snipe-celi. 

Undefeated Russia has a goal differential that defies belief: 36 goals for, seven goals against though seven games. Yet somehow, Russia’s media vultures back home have created a chip on the shoulder of its leading scorer. Premier magazine SovietskySport has been highlighting the fact that Kucherov’s NHL salary is half that of Sweden’s Nylander, the man with whom Kucherov is dueling for scoring honors at this year’s World Championships. The world’s two elite snipers may eventually get to settle those arguments later on in the medal round, but that is simply a sideshow. 

For all of their amazing offensive weapons, it’s defense that has Russia back on the gold-medal track. The big three of Dmitri Orlov (WSH), Nikita Zaitsev (TOR), and Mikhail Sergachov (TAM) have all brought their Stanley Cup A-Game to these championships. And statistically, Russia has the tournament’s premier goalie in Andrei Vasilevskiy (five wins, two shutouts).

Russia vs. USA, an opening quarterfinal is all sizzle and no steak. Seven dominant games have demonstrated how the Russian players treasure IIHF medals, while Patrick Kane and the Americans have had their fill of old-Europe culture for now. They appear eager to get home to the conveniences that accompany NHL millionaires. 

One more discouraging word for the Yanks—sniper and on-ice leader Dylan Larkin is nicked up from blocking a heavy shot versus Canada. He should be able to rehab back in Michigan soon enough. Take Russia in a landslide

Quarterfinal #2: SWEDEN vs. FINLAND

Sweden-Finland is a Nordic showdown that has been a gold-medal matchup for countless IIHF summit battles. But based on the mediocrity displayed by both teams in the latter stages of the round robin, this quarterfinal still might not separate pretender from contender.

Defending world champion Sweden just got its doors blown off by Russia 6-1, and dropped its opener against the Czechs. In between the Swedes narrowly escaped upsets from both Switzerland and lowly Latvia. Their once-vaunted defense, led by “King” Henrik Lundqvist in goal, has given up an average of three goals per game. Sweden’s lineup is loaded with familiar NHL names, including the tournament’s leading scorer William Nylander (5-12-17) and the newly arrived Gabriel Landeskog. But despite its classic colors and fan mania, on ice the champion looked wobbly.

Fortunately for Tre Kronor, the Swedes are facing another paper tiger, the Suomi Lions of Finland. The Finns big victories all came in the early going, including their upset of Canada. Teen sensation Kaapa Kakko is emblematic of Finland’s slow circling of the drain: he has but a single goal since sniping five in his first two games.

Suomi team management has forsaken the help of NHL players, insisting that the group of Finnish Elite League players gel for a month of training before the Worlds. Winger Juho Lammikko leads the squad with 40 NHL games this season, but he has been invisible thus far. Based on its solid preparation but lack of elite personnel, Finland’s results have been predictable: a fast start followed by an inevitable swoon.  

This Nordic quarterfinal should come down to goaltending, as it so often does in playoff hockey. Despite having half a dozen world-class goalies out on golf courses right now, Finland’s starter between the pipes Thursday will be a minor leaguer named Kevin Lankinen. The handsome goalie has split time between the East Coast League and the AHL in the Blackhawks organization this season. Lankinen looked broken in the Finns’ upset loss to Germany to close out the round robin. He will face future hall-of-famer Lundqvist 200 feet away during their clash. Even with the King’s fall from grace, he makes Sweden the favorite on the road in this north country border war.

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