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PREVIEW: US and Canada Take Top Spots As #IIHFWorlds Playoffs Begin Thursday

by Julie Robenhymer / Los Angeles Kings



After 12 days of intense competition at the 2015 IIHF World Championship in Czech Republic, the 16 team field has been cut in half as we head into the quarterfinals on Thursday.

Trevor Lewis and USA finished first in Group B with wins over Finland, Norway, Russia, Denmark, Slovenia and Slovakia. The line of Lewis, Jack Eichel and Brock Nelson has come up huge for the Americans, most recently with a game winning goal in overtime by Eichel against Slovakia yesterday afternoon to clinch that top position in the standings. While Lewis didn't get an assist on the goal, he should have because as USA head coach Todd Richards explains, "That goal doesn't happen if Trevor didn't get to the net and take the goalie's eyes away. He never even saw that shot coming."

Together, that line leads the team in scoring. Nelson is tied for second in the tournament with six goals and three assists to his credit. Lewis has two goals and six assists, while Eichel has two goals and four assists, all in seven games.

USA will face Switzerland in the first game of the quarterfinals at 6:15am PT airing live on NBCSN.

Switzerland typically relies very heavily on the strength of their goaltending. Reto Berra has struggled in his four games with the worst goals against in the tournament (3.57) and save percentage (.876). Conversely, Genoni Leonardo leads the tournament with his 0.98 goals against average and .955 save percentage in his three games played. The more experienced Berra has started the last two games for Switzerland. No announcement has been made regarding which goalie will start in the quarterfinals.

With the exception of a 7-2 loss to Canada and an empty net goal, all of Switzerland's games have been decided by a goal, including five that required overtime or a shootout. They are the lowest scoring team in the tournament with only 12 goals in seven games and have only scored twice on the power play in 33 attempts.

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Jake Muzzin, Tyler Toffoli, Martin Jones and Canada lead the way as the top seed in the entire tournament after going undefeated in the seven-game preliminary round, outscoring opponents by 35 goals along the way as the most offensive team in the tournament. That's partly due to their effective power play, which is converting, on average, once every three opportunities. They're also one of the best penalty killing teams in the tournament having allowed only one goal with the man advantage.

Matt Duchene and Jason Spezza, with four goals and seven assists for 11 points each, are in a four-way tie for the tournament scoring lead. Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall are right behind them with ten and nine points, respectively. Muzzin, Toffoli, Tyson Barrie and Sean Couturier are tied for the tournament lead in plus/minus with +9. With the likes of Sidney Crosby, Tyler Seguin, Claude Giroux and Nathan MacKinnon, to say this team has some offensive weapons is an understatement.

They will face Belarus in the quarterfinal on Thursday at 10:15am PT joined in progress after the USA-SUI game on NBCSN.

Belarus earned their spot in the quarterfinals thanks in large part to a 5-2 win over USA in which they used their most powerful weapon - being able to take advantage of mistakes and generate offensive opportunities out of them. Of the five goals they scored against USA, four of them came from a forced turnover that lead to a breakaway. They're a fast team that likes to use that speed through the neutral zone to get behind defenders.

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Sweden is another team with many offensive weapons, including an effective power play and a very effective transition game. While Filip Forsberg leads the tournament in goals with eight in seven games, it's defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson who leads the team in points and is in a four-way tie for the tournament scoring lead with two goals, nine assist and 11 points in seven games.

Their goaltending nor their penalty kill has been as solid as we're used to seeing from them. Jonas Enroth has an average of 2.34 goals against and an .889 save percentage and they've allowed five power play goals. They are a team that relies on their skill being able to outscore opponents. Outside of routs against Austria and Latvia, all of their games have been very close and they allowed a handful of teams to get back into games including Canada, whom they had a three goal lead on after the first period before losing 6-4.

Sweden will face Russia in the second quarterfinal in Ostrava at 10:15am PT.

Russia's strength is their power play, converting on 40% of their opportunities. That is not a typo. They lead the tournament with eight goals on the man advantage on just 20 opportunities. Yevgeni Dadonov is part of that four-way tie for the tournament scoring lead with four goals and seven assists for 11 points. 23-year-old Artemi Panarin leads the team in goals with five, plus another five assist. They too rely a lot on their offensive weapons, which also include Ilya Kovalchuk and Yevgeni Malkin, but the guy between the pipes for them isn't bad either. Sergei Bobrovski has a 1.99 goals against and .902 save percentage through six games.

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Finland defeated Russia in a shootout last night in the final game of the preliminary round to earn the second spot in Group B. After their 5-1 loss to USA on the opening day of the tournament, Pekka Rinne literally shut the door with four shutouts in a row and an IIHF record 207 scoreless minutes. They have yet to allow a power play goal and are converting on their own power play, on average, once out of every four opportunities. In short, teams must be prepared to pounce on Finland's mistakes because they don't make them often and should limit their own mistakes because the Finns will most definitely take advantage of the opportunity.

Finland will drop the puck against Czech Republic at a sold out O2 Arena in Prague as the final quarterfinal at 11:15am PT.

Czech Republic has found a way to score more than expected, due in large part to their effective power play. They also have the added advantage of 17,000+ screaming, dancing, jumping, chanting fans in their corner for every minute of every game. As far as offensive statistics go, they are very middle-of-the-pack with Jaromir Jagr leading them with four goals, but they've gotten excellent goaltending from Ondrej Pavelec to keep them in most games. Through six games played, he's only allowed nine goals with a 1.58 goals against average and a .921 save percentage.

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Austria and Slovenia have been relegated after finishing eighth in their respective groups here in Czech Republic. They will be replaced by Hungary and Kazahkstan, who won their respective tournaments last month to earn the promotion to compete in the 2016 IIHF World Championship in Russia.

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