One game featured a showdown between neighboring countries featuring two of the most electric offensive teams in the tournament. The other, a classic rivalry between two well-coached and well-balanced sides. The semifinal round of the 2016 IIHF U20 World Championship came with high expectations and did not disappoint (despite low goal totals), setting up what should be a fantastic finale on Tuesday between Finland and Russia.
Sweden and Finland have met in the elimination rounds in each of the last two tournaments; Finland—led by Teuvo Teravainen—won the 2014 gold-medal match in overtime on Swedish home ice. Sweden sought to return the favor in Helsinki, beginning the game with a strong push and taking the lead off a tap-in from draft-eligible Rasmus Asplund. But like they’ve done so many times before, the Finns returned with a vengeance in the second period, gaining momentum off several power-play opportunities and scoring twice. Although the Finns are known more for their high-powered offense this year, they played a perfect shutdown period in the third, limiting Sweden to three shots on goal, most coming from the perimeter.
The game featured a pair of Blackhawks defensive prospects in Gustav Forsling and Joni Tuulola, staples on the top pairings of Sweden and Finland, respectively. Tuulola had a strong game in his own zone, largely tasked with shutting down Sweden’s top lines and killing penalties. Forsling was most noticeable in the offensive zone, tallying a team-high five shots on goal; he was on the ice late in the game as Sweden had to kill off a late penalty in order to get one last surge, but his chance in the dying seconds went wide of the net. Through five games, Forsling has three points (2G, 1A) and shares second with 21 SOG.
Team USA started slowly in their semifinal tilt, trying to avoid being eliminated by the Russians for a third straight year, but escaped the first period with a 1-0 lead after killing off a full two minutes of 5-on-3. Russia outshot the U.S. 27-14 in the first 40 minutes and broke through twice in the middle frame, before executing a defensive game plan in the third period to prevail 2-1. Forward Nick Schmaltz was involved in all situations, and was out on the ice in the final minutes as the Americans fought to tie the game; he won seven of 13 faceoffs in the game. The 2014 first-round pick has five points (2G, 3A) through six games in the tournament.
Medal game schedule/preview (Tuesday, Jan. 5, NHL Network):
Bronze: Sweden vs. USA, 8 a.m. CT. Sweden handed the United States their only shutout loss at World Juniors with a 1-0 win in the preliminary round, a game that featured superb goaltending from Islanders draft pick Linus Soderstrom, who stopped 46 saves that night, almost half of which were accrued on American power plays. The two sides share the tournament lead with just 1.17 goals allowed per game, and the bronze-medal match could come down to one or two breakthroughs by star players.
Gold: Finland vs. Russia, 12:30 p.m. CT. Finland’s only loss of the tournament came at the hands of Russia, who scored four consecutive goals after falling into a 3-1 hole to emerge with a 6-4 win in the preliminary round. Both teams have survived three consecutive one-goal games, so the gold-medal tilt could be another tightly fought contest. Although their defense and goaltending has been shaky, the Finns have definitely enjoyed a home-crowd advantage, and they’ll try to ride that energy to their second gold medal in three years.