It’s fun when underdogs make it to championship games, right? After all rooting for an underdog to pull off the unexpected upset is one of the best things in sports. There is also the case to be made for the two best teams in a tournament squaring off against each other for the right to drape the gold around their neck. That’s what we’re going to get tonight at the 2021 World Juniors Tournament in Edmonton - Canada versus the United States.
Both teams took care of business in the semifinal round as Canada steamrolled through Russia, continuing their impressive streak of never having trailed in this tournament. The United States advanced, and in the process beat one of their rivals, although it wasn’t as easy as their fans would have hoped for.
This was the predicted final prior to the start of the tournament as the two countries are fielding a fantastic group of young skaters, each side littered with high draft picks. Before we get to that game, lets take a look at how they got here.
Canada 5, Russia 0
Canada entered the game not having trailed in the tournament. Alex Newhook made sure that streak would continue as he scored less than a minute into the game. The Colorado Avalanche prospect had missed the quarterfinals with an apparent shoulder injury, but it didn’t seem to bother him as he put Team Canada up 1-0 (even if it did take a review to verify it).
The Canadians were flying around the ice and Russia was struggling to keep pace. The Russians were limited to the occasional rushes into their opponent’s zone and couldn’t sustain pressure. Meanwhile Canada was able to break out of their own zone and enter the Russian’s zone with ease. Midway through the period, with goaltender Yaroslav Askarov using a teammate’s stick after dropping his own (this would be a reoccurring theme) Connor McMichael was able to get inside position on Yan Kuznetsov and finish off a nice pass from Jakob Pelletier.
Down 2-0 in the first period in a must-win game the last thing the Russians needed to do was take a penalty. Unfortunately they did as Vasili Podkolzin took a four-minute high sticking penalty. Cole Perfetti snapped a shot under Askarov’s glove to make it 3-0. Just like expected.
The period ended with Canada leading in shots 16-7 and outplaying Russia in every aspect of the game. Even when Rodion Amirov or Mikhail Abromov had the puck in the offensive zone, any space or lane that they had was quickly shut off by the Canadian defense. One-on-one battles were going Canada’s way as well.
The second period was more of the same early on as Canada added one more goal four minutes into the period. For roughly the sixth time in the game, Askarov lost control of his stick and his teammates were scrambling around trying to get it to him while Canada was working the puck around in the zone. Eventually Brandon Schnieder rifled one past the goalie (again under the catching glove).
After Askarov made a couple of decent saves (including one with his stick) the Russians finally picked up some momentum with a power play with three-and-a-half minutes to go in the second period. The special teams unit was clicking and it appeared that Abramov had batted a rebound into the back of the net. Unfortunately it was all for naught as the Russians were ruled offside on the entry.
With 30 seconds left in the period Dylan Cozens had a chance to ice the game with a penalty shot. His backhand attempt was stopped by the blade of Askarov’s right skate.
Not much of note happened in the third period as Canada continued to play a solid, fundamental game. Cozens did end up getting his goal as he capped off the night with an empty-netter to give Team Canada a 5-0 victory.
Devon Levi stopped all 28 shots he faced for his third shutout of the tournament. He’s posted a .53 GAA and .975 Save Percentage. For all of the acclaim that the team in front of him garners, his solid play in net has been just as important to their success.
Lightning prospect Maxim Groshev didn’t skate a single shift in the first period (you know, the one where Russia gave up three goals). He ended up playing just over ten minutes over the last two periods. No goals, but his usual strong game on the puck. While his point total was lacking he was one of the best players in the tournament in getting the puck out of his own zone and into the opponent’s zone. He’ll head back to Russia for the next couple of years, but looks to have the type of skills that will bode well in the NHL.
United States 4, Finland 3
While the USA/Canada matches get all of the hype during this tournament, the Americans recent nemesis has been Finland. In the 2020 quarterfinals it was Finland 1, USA 0. In the 2019 Final it was 3, USA 2. So it was only fitting that the two teams meet in the semifinal this year to determine who gets to play for the gold medal against Canada.
It was an excellent match-up between the speed and skill of the Americans and the skill and dogged determination of the Finns. Both teams were skating really well in the opening period and it seemed like there was a lot of room on the ice for the attacks and counter-attacks by each side.
The United States struck first, seven-and-a-half minutes into the game. Alex Turcotte posted up in front of the Finnish net and had a teammate’s shot hit him in both legs. He was able to gather up the puck and shovel it into the net before Kari Piironien could slide over and cover the open space.
Finland answered right back, less than two minutes later. They’ve had a very efficient and productive power play. Why? How about pinpoint passing.
Once Spencer Knight sold out expecting a shot from Kasper Puutio, there was no way he could recover in time to stop Kasper Simontaival’s shot. Defenseman Cam York was a fraction of a second to late in getting his stick out to stop the pass as well.
The second period was pretty much the US attacking with speed, trying to wear down the Finnish defense and get them to break out of their system. It eventually worked and for a five minute stretch of time it looked like the United States had locked up the game.
First it was John Farinacci getting behind the defense and receiving a perfect pass from Jackson Lacombe. The Coyotes pick has a quick shot and he showed it off, easily beating Piironien to give the US a 2-1 lead.
A four-minute high-sticking penalty by Finland a minute later allowed the US to put their very successful power play unit on the ice. They converted with their own nifty passing play as Matthew Boldy tipped home a pass from Trevor Zegras (who else).
Being down entering the third period is apparently just where Finland likes to be (just ask Sweden). Despite the Americans refusing to go into a defensive shell, the Finns stuck to their game plan and kept pressing. Midway through the period they started to take advantage of some sloppy play by the US.
Another nice pass across the crease and another Simontaival goal that Knight could do nothing to stop. The momentum was clearly on Finland’s side now and they started to pile up shots. You could feel the equalizer coming. With Henry Thrun in the box on a questionable over the glass penalty, Roni Hirovonen (who had scored the game-winner in their quarterfinal comeback against Sweden) snuck one in between the post and Knight’s body to level the score.
With under five minutes to go, would the US play for overtime or try and win the game? They’d been agressive all night long so why stop now? With just over a minute to go, Arthur Kaliyev was open in the slot and Alex Turcotte slid the puck to him. Kaliyev didn’t hesitate and wired the puck, top corner over the goalie’s glove for the 4-3 lead. The United States held on, extracted a bit of revenge for the past defeats, and will face Canada for the gold medal.
Finland vs. Russia (Bronze Medal Game) 5:30 pm NHL Network
Less than 24 hours after both teams suffered deflating losses, they have to pull themselves together to try and win the bronze medal.
Canada vs. United States (Gold Medal Game) 9:30 pm NHL Network
It’s the match-up North America wanted and expected. The last two times these teams have met in the finals (2017 and 2010) the United States has won, once in a shootout (2017) and once in overtime (2010). You know Canada really wants to win this game. It will feature the two points leaders in the tournament (Dylan Cozens and Trevor Zegras are tied with 16 points) and the top two goaltenders (Devon Levi with a .53 GAA and Spencer Knight with a 1.98 GAA). Should make for an excellent match.