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WJC 2016: Three Blue Jackets prospects play for spot in gold medal game

by Mike G. Morreale / Columbus Blue Jackets

The impact that several 2016 NHL Draft-eligible prospects have had for their respective countries at the IIHF World Junior Championship in Finland this year has been remarkable.

"It's like being a kid in a candy store," Chicago Blackhawks senior director of amateur scouting Mark Kelley told NHL.com. "Not only has the competition been top notch, but if you look at the teams and the roles that some of these players are having on those teams at the age they are, it's incredible.

"These aren't players who are on the team to gain experience; they're players who are on the team to have an impact and make a difference and we're seeing that on a nightly basis."

The semifinal round of the tournament begins Monday and features 11 players projected as A-rated prospects on NHL Central Scouting's November players to watch list for the 2016 NHL Draft. Among that group of underage performers, six are among the top seven in scoring at the tournament.

Finland has three players among the leaders in forwards Jesse Puljujarvi (five goals, 15 points), Patrik Laine (six goals, 11 points) and defenseman Olli Juolevi (nine assists). The United States has forwards Auston Matthews (seven goals, 11 points) and Matthew Tkachuk (four goals, nine points), and Sweden has forward Alexander Nylander (four goals, nine points).

Juolevi is first in scoring among defensemen at the tournament.

The semifinal round at Hartwall Arena on Monday features Finland against Sweden (9 a.m. ET; NHLN) and the United States against Russia (1 p.m. ET; NHLN).

"From an NHL standpoint, what we're seeing here in Finland is that the top of the NHL Draft is going to be very rich," Kelley said.

The winner of this year's WJC will mark the seventh straight new champion. The last repeat winner was Canada, winner of five straight from 2005-09.

Here are five things to watch in the semifinal round of the World Junior Championship:

Matthews magic: United States center Auston Matthews entered the WJC with a big bull's-eye on his back but nothing has deterred him from living up to all the hype as the projected No. 1 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft.

"He plays at a high pace and is strong on pucks," U.S. assistant coach Danton Cole told NHL Network. "He's got the hands and is just a relentless worker. He doesn't take too many shifts off so that's what makes him such a great athlete."

Matthews' best game of the tournament thus far came Saturday in the quarterfinal round against the Czech Republic when he became the first player to score a hat trick for the United States in the WJC since Johnny Gaudreau in an identical 7-0 victory against the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals on Jan. 2, 2013.

The 18-year-old native of Scottsdale, Ariz., leads the tournament with seven goals and is tied for third with 11 points. Matthews is one goal short of tying the U.S. record of eight in one WJC tournament by Jeremy Roenick in 1989. He has five goals and seven points in the past three games.

"Matthews is getting better and better every game," Kelley said. "The past three games he's just been dominant and you can see that confidence."

Russian resistance: The United States was been eliminated by Russia in the quarterfinal round of the WJC the past two years; 5-3 in 2014 and 3-2 in 2015. The Americans, who won the gold medal following a 3-1 win against Sweden in 2013, have never beaten Russia in the playoff round of the tournament.

Russia, winner of the Group B pool, survived a quarterfinal-round scare from Denmark when Vladislav Kamenev, a second-round pick in the 2014 NHL Draft by the Nashville Predators, scored his second of the game at 5:00 of overtime in a 4-3 victory.

The United States is 5-0-0-11-0 (W-OTW-OTL-L-T) all-time against Russia in the WJC. Russia has won the past four games. The U.S. last defeated Russia, 3-2, in the preliminary round on Dec. 29, 2007.

Russia won a silver medal at the 2015 WJC, losing 5-4 to Canada in the final at Air Canada Centre in Toronto. The country has medaled five straight times at the WJC but is seeking its first gold since 2011 in Buffalo.

American made defense: In addition to having 13 players with at least one goal and ranking second among the 10 teams in the tournament in scoring efficiency, the defensive coverage for the United States has been solid.

"I think limiting four teams, including Canada and Sweden, to a total of five goals shows that our defense and penalty kill have been successful," coach Ron Wilson said. "Maybe more so than we anticipated."

The United States is tied with Sweden for the fewest goals allowed after five games with five. It ranks third in penalty-killing efficiency (91.6 percent) and goaltenders Alex Nedeljkovic (Carolina Hurricanes) and Brandon Halverson (New York Rangers) have combined for a tournament-low 1.00 GAA and tournament-best .959 save percentage. Nedeljkovic has a 1.15 GAA and .953 save percentage in four games.

U.S. captain Zachary Werenski (Columbus Blue Jackets) and Brandon Carlo (Boston Bruins) have formed, perhaps, the best defense pair in the tournament. They are tied for the tournament lead with a plus-8 rating in five games and Werenski is second in scoring among all defenders with seven points (two goals, five assists).

The U.S. has also received solid play from Louie Belpedio (Minnesota Wild), Will Borgen (Buffalo Sabres), Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Fortunato and Chad Krys. McAvoy (Boston University) and Krys (USA Hockey Under-18 National Team Development Program) are A-rated skaters on Central Scouting's November list. Fortunato, who also plays at Boston University, has learned a lot from U.S. assistant coach and Hockey Hall of Fame member Chris Chelios.

"The best tip I've learned from him was probably not to try and do too much out there," Fortunato said. "Everyone needs to play their role and don't try to be a hero by taking too many risks. Doing the little things right is more important."

How Swede it is: The last time Sweden played for the gold medal at the WJC was 2014 in Malmo, Sweden, when Finland earned a 3-2 victory on a goal by Buffalo Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen 9:42 into overtime.

Now, Sweden is looking for some payback on rival ice in Helsinki in this year's semifinal round before an expected sell out at Hartwall Arena.

Sweden won 6-3 against Finland in the quarterfinal round on the way to a fourth-place finish at the 2015 WJC to take a 16-15 lead in the all-time series. There have also been two ties in 33 matches.

Sweden is the only team to win all five games in regulation at the tournament and they've done it without their best player, forward William Nylander (Toronto Maple Leafs). The Swedish Hockey Association revealed Sunday that Nylander, who sustained an upper-body injury 15:37 into the first period against Switzerland on Dec. 26, will not return to the lineup.

There are 15 players on the roster with at least one goal, including center Rasmus Asplund (two goals, four points), an A-rated skater on Central Scouting's November players to watch list. William Nylander's younger brother, Alexander, another A-rated skater, leads the team with nine points.

Goaltender Linus Soderstrom (New York Islanders) shut out the United States in preliminary-round play and Slovakia in the quarterfinal round, and has a 1.27 goals-against average and .951 save percentage in four games.

High flying Finns: After scoring eight goals in five games on the way to a disappointing seventh-place finish at the 2015 WJC in Montreal and Toronto, Finland is thriving this year on the strength of the most productive offensive line of the tournament.

Puljujarvi, Laine and Sebastian Aho, a second round pick (No. 35) in the 2015 NHL Draft by the Carolina Hurricanes, are having a tournament to remember. They have combined for 15 goals and 38 points in five games. Puljujarvi leads the tournament with 10 assists and 15 points.

Puljujarvi and Laine teamed with and Aleksi Saarela (New York Rangers) to form a dynamic line in April at the 2015 IIHF World Under-18 Championship in Switzerland. Laine led the way with eight goals and 11 points in seven games, and the line combined for 13 goals and 26 points on the way to a silver medal-winning performance.

Finland not only leads the tournament with 29 goals, but also in power-play goals with 10. At the 2015 WJC, Finland was the only country that failed to score a power play goal (0-for-20).

Finland has scored more than 30 goals twice in the past 18 WJC events, and won a gold medal each time. They scored 35 goals in 1998 and 34 in 2014.

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