Let me start by saying that I really have no rooting interest in who wins this tournament. Sure, there is the intrinsic pull of nationalism that comes along any time there is an international event that makes me want to see the United States win. Then there is the appreciation of greatness excelling that would be fulfilled by a Canadian win. Sweden has played so well in the preliminary round only to falter in the medal rounds. Russia has one of the Lightning’s newest prospects in Maxim Groshev, so seeing him drape a gold medal around his neck would be cool. Heck, Germany winning would be perfectly fitting for a tournament that began in 2020.
So, I’ve been watching these games with the detached interest of someone who just wants to see live hockey, and I’ve been watching a bunch of it, more than ever before. In the process I’ve become fans of random players that I’ve never heard of before. Right now my favorite - Elmer Söderblom. First of all, there aren’t enough Elmer’s in the world. He’s gotta be the most famous Elmer after Fudd and Glue right now, right?
He’s also a 19-year-old forward playing for Sweden who has a goal and an assist in three games so far in the preliminary round. Why is he one of my favorites? Well, because he’s 6’8” and has the silky mitts of a young Pavel Datsyuk. Look at this play from Sweden’s overtime loss to Russia:
Soderblom using strength and reach in OT pic.twitter.com/7YRB9ehiNd— MichiganBallHockey (@BallMichigan) December 31, 2020
People that big aren’t supposed to be able to pull off moves like that on the ice. They’re supposed to be awkward and then make up for that by plastering people against the boards, you know, like new Washington Capital Zdeno Chara. They’re supposed to stand there and let smaller players dangle around them on their way to prime scoring chances.
I have no idea if Söderblom is going to be able to transfer this skill to the NHL. He’s not the best forward in the tournament. Heck, he’s not even the best forward on his own team. He was a 6th round pick by the Detroit Red Wings in 2019 and has been playing in the Swedish Hockey League with Frölunda for the last two seasons. He’s yet to record a point in 17 games. So who knows.
Still, at this point I’m buying Söderblom stock. If the Lightning dump salary on the Red Wings, I’d be more than willing to campaign for him to be thrown in the deal. How much fun would he be a future power play with Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point?
Again, there is a huge difference between playing well in a tournament against undersized 17-and-18-year-olds and the NHL. That’s part of the fun of the tournament. Watching some kid enjoy the spotlight and help his team to a possible medal is a blast. Right now it doesn’t matter what lies in his future, just enjoying the play right now is enough.
Oh yeah, and he also did this earlier in the tournament:
Nifty hands from Elmer Soderblom to extend Sweden's lead pic.twitter.com/ZtoBEiZCzX— TSN (@TSN_Sports) December 26, 2020
Finland 6, Slovakia 0
I feel like Finland hasn’t been getting enough run in this tournament thus far. It seems the focus has been on Canada, naturally, and the chaos that is Group B. Meanwhile, Finland has calmly gone about the business of winning games. Wednesday was no different as they dispatching Slovakia easily and have now matched Canada with three wins and nine points.
Kari Piiroinen stopped all 12 shots he faced to pick up his second win and first shutout in the tournament while Samuel Helenius scored twice. Anton Lundell had 3 points (1 goal, 2 assists) as the Finns launched 50 shots on net.
Germany 5, Switzerland 4
Finally able to field an entire team on the ice, Germany held off a late charge from the Swiss to move up and finish in third place in Group A. They needed their top players to step up and that they did. Tim Stützle had 5 points (2 goals, 3 assists) while J.J. Peterka (a 2nd round pick by the Buffalo Sabers) had a hat trick and 2 assists.
It looked like the Germans were going to cruise into the quarterfinals as they built a 4-0 lead through two periods against a team that had only scored once in their previous three games. Switzerland fought back as they scored twice in under a minute midway through the second.
Peterka’s third goal was an empty netter that seemed to salt the game away with two-and-a-half-minutes to go. Switzerland wasn’t finished. Noah Meier scored with under two minutes to go in the game. As the clock clicked under 30 seconds Simon Knak added one more. Time ran out before they could find the equalizer and now Germany will wait to see how things suss out in Group B to see who their opponent will be in the next round.
Stützle is now tied with USA forward Trevor Zegres for the tournament lead in goals with 5. His fourth goal of the tournament was a little something special:
Russia 4, Sweden 3 (OT)
This was a fun game to watch (even if Hugo Alnefelt didn’t get the start). There was a distinct pattern throughout the game - Russia would take the lead and Sweden would battle back to tie it. The problem with that method, at least for the Swedes, is that once it gets to overtime, there’s no way to tie it after Russia scores. With the win, Russia closes out their portion of the preliminary round in first place of Group B with 8 points. Their reign could be short though, if either Sweden or the US wins in regulation today, they will leapfrog Russia.
In addition to fighting for first place, Sweden came into the game with a 54-game winning streak in the preliminary round. They fought hard to keep that streak alive as Alexander Holtz banked a shot off of teammate Noel Gunler to tie the game with one minute left in regulation.
Both teams had chances in overtime but a late penalty by Sweden’s Arvid Costmar proved costly. Special teams was the difference in the game. First Sweden wasn’t able to convert on back-to-back power plays midway through the second while Russia connected three times with the man advantage, including the game winner:
The #WorldJuniors kicked into high gear today, capped with an Sweden-Russia OT thriller that ended on the stick of @russiahockey 's Marat Khusnutdinov, snapping @trekronor's 54-game preliminary round win streak! pic.twitter.com/E6HvxnqI4S— IIHF (@IIHFHockey) December 31, 2020
Czech Republic (1-0-0-2, 3 points) vs. Austria (0-0-0-3, 0 points) 2:00 pm EST NHL Network
There is a small chance Austria can overtake the Czech Republic in the standings. It would take a win and a lot, I mean A LOT, of goals in order to overcome the goal differential tiebreaker. Meanwhile, the Czechs are reeling a bit after their 7-0 loss to the US in their last game. The 2-0 win over the Russians seems like a lifetime ago.
Canada (3-0-0-0, 9 points) vs. Finland (3-0-0-0, 9 points) 6:00 pm EST NHL Network
Pretty sure the schedule makers had a feeling these two teams would be tied heading into the final preliminary game. Can Finland pull off the upset and make for an interesting quarterfinals by finishing first in the group and rearranging the seedings? Probably not, Canada is really good and may have played their most complete game the other night.
Sweden (2-0-1-0, 7 points) vs. USA (2-0-0-1, 6 points) 9:30 EST NHL Network
Much like the Canada/Finland game it’s pretty simple, win and gain first place in the group. The US will be able to take advantage of Sweden coming off of a tough game against Russia last night, but they will to face Hugo Alnefelt in net. The Lightning prospect has looked really good in the games he appeared in and has success in this tournament.
Meanwhile, the US will have to choose between Spencer Knight, who was their number one goaltender heading into the tournament and Dustin Wolf who hasn’t allowed a goal in 86 minutes of play. Should be a really good game.