Michael DiPietro backstopped Canada to their third straight victory and looked sharp doing so, while Toni Utunen and Finland came away with a win over Slovakia. However, Quinn Hughes, Tyler Madden and Team USA suffered their first loss of the tournament as they ran into a tough Swedish team.
All four prospects will be off on Sunday, but are back in action on New Year's Eve to close out the preliminary round.
Canada (5) - Czech Republic (1)
Michael DiPietro (CAN): 23 saves, win
When they needed him to come up big, he delivered. DiPietro stopped 23-of-24 shots fired his way to help Canada take a 5-1 victory over the Czech Republic on Saturday evening, improving their record to a perfect 3-0-0 in preliminary round action.
Canada took a 3-1 lead into the first intermission, but came out flat to start the middle frame. DiPietro made his first big save just 30 seconds into the period, then a few minutes later turned aside Ondrej Machala's initial shot on a partial breakaway, as well as Jan Jenik's rebound attempt a blink of an eye later. It could have been an entirely different game.
DiPietro looked calm and focused each time he was called upon, even making a yet another stellar save with the game out of reach and just 1:27 left on the clock. The only goal he allowed was 6:40 into the 1st period on a two-on-one play he had no chance on.
He has gotten stronger and stronger since the start of selection camp back on December 11 and has turned aside 37 of the 38 shots he has faced in two starts.
But now comes the toughest test to date: A New Year's Eve clash with Russia with first place in Group A on the line.
Next up: vs. Russia (Monday, 5:00pm PT, TSN 1/4)
United States (4) - Sweden (5)
Quinn Hughes (USA): 1 assist, 4 shots
Tyler Madden (USA): 0 points, 0 shots
It was like watching an entirely different Team USA on Saturday. For 50 minutes that is.
We did not see those Quinn Hughes end-to-end skates or improvised plays along the blueline that we saw the first two games. Tyler Madden's line with Evan Barratt and Noah Cates couldn't find any sustained pressure in the offensive zone, where they seemed to live against Slovakia and Kazakhstan. Sweden completely shut down the United States for two and a half periods.
It wasn't until the 3rd period the United States came alive. They trailed 3-0 and had just 12 shots on goal after 40 minutes. They trailed 4-0 with the midway mark of the 3rd period approaching. Then they went ahead and rattled off four goals in the final 10:26 of regulation to force overtime, where Sweden would win it with 1:09 left in the extra period.
Perhaps it was a case of the United States not being sharp, having an off-game. Or it could be Sweden is that good. They have now won 47 straight preliminary round games at the World Juniors after all.
"They are a really good team," said Hughes. "I thought that they pretty much had the puck for the entire 1st and 2nd period. Credit to them, they are really gifted offensively, skilled and smart. Sometimes it's going to happen that way where things aren't going your way. I think that's what kind of happened with a combination of us not playing our game."
Hughes finished with a team-high 27:23 of ice time, collected one assist and had four shots on goal, including both the United States shots in overtime.
Madden logged 22:23 of ice time, most among all American forwards, but failed to record a shot on goal.
After a day off on Sunday, Hughes, Madden and Team USA will be back in action to take on Finland on New Year's Eve, in what is now a massive matchup. Winner will get the #2 seed in Group B, with the loser finishing in the #3 seed.
"I watched them play the 3rd period against Slovakia and they are really skilled," said Hughes. "They will be really good too and we are going to have to play a full 60 minutes."
Next up: vs. Finland (Monday, 7:30pm PT, TSN 1/5)
Finland (5) - Slovakia (1)
Toni Utunen (FIN): 4 Shots
After a somewhat disappointing individual performance against Kazakhstan on Thursday, Utunen turned in his best game of the tournament Saturday afternoon as Finland improved to 2-1-0 with a 5-1 win over Slovakia.
He finished with four shots on goal, which was second most on his team, in 14:47 of ice time, fourth among Finnish blueliners.
"This was easily our best game of the tournament," said Utunen. "Anytime you score five goals it's a good sign and we controlled the puck a lot more tonight.
"The 3rd period was pretty good for me. Overall, I think this was a much better game for me than the first two games of the tournament. I am starting to skate with the puck a lot more."
The above mentioned 3rd period was in fact pretty good for him. His confidence level seemed to take it up a notch as he kept the puck on his stick and used his feet to advance the puck up the ice instead of relying on making an outlet pass each time. He was able to get the puck through traffic and on net from the point, finishing with three shots in total during the frame.
Some of the progress he made can be attributed to him getting more accustomed to the North American ice sheet.
"I do prefer the bigger ice back home," said Utunen. "The first couple games over here I did not like the small ice, but now I know I can play on it and it's coming easier for me. The first two games were hard as the situations came so fast and I wasn't ready for that at times. Now I feel I can play much better."
Utunen and Finland close out the preliminary round with a game against the United States on New Year's Eve, and there is a little history between the Canucks' fifth-round pick in 2018 and his next opponent. Utunen captained Finland to a gold medal at the 2018 IIHF Under-18 World Championship last spring, beating the United States in the final game. The previous year, as an under-ager, he and Finland lost to the United States in the gold medal game.
"Any game against the United States is a physical game," said Utunen. "I trust we have a great chance to win if we just play like we did today (Saturday). We need to get the puck on our stick and control the game. This is the game I am looking forward to the most."
Next up: vs. United States (Monday, 7:30pm PT, TSN 1/5)