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Five things learned from World Junior quarterfinals

by Adam Kimelman

Auston Matthews and Jesse Puljujarvi were among the most talked about players entering the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship. Their runs at tournament history have drawn even more attention.

Matthews, projected to be the top pick of the 2016 NHL Draft, had a hat trick in the United States' 7-0 defeat of the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals.

His goal late in the first period gave the U.S. a 3-0 lead. Midway through the second period he one-timed a pass from Nick Schmaltz, a Chicago Blackhawks prospect, for a power-play goal to make it 5-0. And 24 seconds into the third period he completed the hat trick with a hard, low shot from the center of Czech zone for another power-play goal to make it 6-0.

He leads the tournament with seven goals, and with two games to go he's one behind Jeremy Roenick's U.S. record of eight goals in 1989. The other U.S. players with seven goals in one WJC are Mark Green (1978), Scott Young (1987), Peter Ferraro (1993), Chris Bourque (2006) and Johnny Gaudreau (2013).

Puljujarvi, like Matthews an A-rated prospect for the 2016 draft, also has had an outstanding tournament. He had three assists in Finland's 6-5 defeat of defending champion Canada in the quarterfinals Saturday to push his tournament-leading total to 15 points.

He helped win a board battle to set up a goal by fellow top draft prospect Patrik Laine with 11.3 seconds left in the first period for Finland's first goal. Late in the second he set up Aleksi Saarela (New York Rangers) for a power-play goal that tied the game 3-3. And early in the third his drive to the net was stopped but Sebastian Aho (Carolina Hurricanes) followed and scored on the rebound to give Finland a 5-4 lead.

Puljujarvi is within reach of the best-ever WJC performance by an under-18 player, Jaromir Jagr's 18 points for Czechoslovakia in 1990. Wayne Gretzky of Canada in 1978 and Eric Lindros of Canada in 1991 each had 17 points, and David Vyborny of Czechoslovakia in 1993 also had 15 points.

Here are five things we learned on quarterfinal Saturday at World Junior Championship:

Deep draft pool -- The World Junior Championship generally is dominated by 19-year-olds, but the 2016 edition is proving to be one for the kids.

Of the top seven scorers, six are players eligible for the 2016 NHL Draft. Besides Puljujarvi's 15 points, Matthews and Laine are tied for third with 11; Sweden forward Alexander Nylander and Finland defenseman Olli Juolevi are tied for fifth with nine; and U.S. forward Matthew Tkachuk is seventh with eight. The only drafted player to break into the top eight is Aho, who centers Puljujarvi and Laine and is second with 12 points.

The top three goal scorers are Matthews with seven, Laine with six and Puljujarvi with five. Puljujarvi (10) and Juolevi (nine) lead in assists. Juolevi leads all defensemen in points.

Denmark upset denied -- Denmark is going home from the World Juniors for a second straight time after a tough loss in the quarterfinals. But what happened Saturday was a completely different experience from 2015.

Denmark led Russia 3-2 with 44.1 seconds left in regulation before losing 4-3 in overtime.

"They have an experience now for life and their hockey future," Denmark coach Olaf Eller told TSN. "They have a taste of how close you can come."

It's a far cry from their 8-0 loss to Canada in the 2015 WJC quarterfinals. That Denmark roster featured Winnipeg Jets rookie Nikolai Ehlers and Jets prospect Oliver Bjorkstrand, who is playing in the American Hockey League.

The 2016 edition of Denmark did more with less name recognition. Although after making 42 saves Saturday goalie Thomas Lillie could draw some extra attention from scouts for the 2016 draft.

"This means a lot to Denmark," Lillie told TSN. "Disappointed now, but when we look back on it we can be proud."

Despite scoring four goals in four group games, Denmark won in regulation in the preliminary round for the first time, beating Switzerland. And two straight trips to the quarterfinals is another block to a growing hockey foundation.

"We believed we could win before [the game]," forward Alexander True said. "As the game went on we believed more and more."

The other Nylander continues to shine -- It's no surprise there's a Nylander leading Sweden in scoring at the World Juniors. But few would have expected it to be Alexander Nylander.

William Nylander, Alexander's older brother, led Sweden in scoring at the 2015 WJC. This season he leads the American Hockey League in goals and points, and he was considered the focal point of Sweden's quest for a WJC gold.

That lasted about 15 minutes into the first game against Switzerland when he sustained a head injury on an illegal check.

Into the breech stepped Alexander Nylander, who leads Sweden with four goals and nine points. He started the tournament strong with four assists in an 8-3 win against Switzerland and scored in a 1-0 defeat of the United States. He has at least one point in every game, including the final goal in the 6-0 defeat of Slovakia in the quarterfinals.

The 17-year-old has had an outstanding season with Mississauga in the Ontario Hockey League, where he leads rookies and ranks in the top 10 among all players in goals and points. He earned an A rating from NHL Central Scouting in its November players to watch list.

Strome steps up -- While most of his teammates and his coach played the underdog card heading into the quarterfinals against Finland, Dylan Strome (Arizona Coyotes) went the other way.

"I think they're going to be scared to play us," he told TSN on Friday. "I think they should be."

Not sure if Finland was shaking in its skates, but Strome certainly did his best to back up his words. He scored a goal in the first period, led Canada with eight shots on goal and won 14 of 19 faceoffs.

Strome was Canada's most consistent forward during the tournament and tied for the team lead with four goals and six points. Canada officials voted Strome one of the team's three best players at the tournament along with defenseman Joe Hicketts (Detroit Red Wings) and forward Mathew Barzal (New York Islanders).

Meier makes an impact -- Switzerland captain Timo Meier (San Jose Sharks) had one goal through the first four games. His lack of production is one reason Switzerland is back in the relegation round for second straight WJC.

In the first game of the best-of-3 series against Belarus, Meier had his best game of the 2016 WJC. He set up Denis Malgin's go-ahead goal with 4:24 left in the second period and scored on a power play to close Switzerland's 5-1 victory.

Meier said he knows there's still a bit of work to do to guarantee Switzerland a spot in the 2017 WJC in Toronto and Montreal. Game 2 is Sunday. Game 3, if needed, would be Tuesday.

"We haven't won anything yet," Meier told the IIHF website. "The game tomorrow is going to be huge for us, and we want to play our best game then. We'd played against them before so we knew what to expect. And they haven't given up now."


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