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Sweden, Russia, Canada, Slovakia set for WJC semis

by Mike G. Morreale

TORONTO -- Sweden, Russia, Canada and Slovakia are the final four teams left at the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship, and they'll play in the semifinals Sunday at Air Canada Centre.

Sweden, who won the silver medal at the 2014 WJC, plays Russia, the 2014 bronze medalists, in one semifinal; Canada faces Slovakia in the second game.

The survivors will meet in the gold-medal game in Toronto on Monday at 8 p.m. ET. The bronze-medal game is Monday at 4 p.m. ET.

Canada is making its 17th consecutive appearance in the tournament semifinals, Sweden is making its ninth straight appearance and Russia is in the final four for the fifth straight time. Slovakia, which has finished no higher than sixth (2012) the past five years at the WJC, last earned a semifinal berth in 2009.

A new champion is guaranteed this year since Finland, the 2014 gold medalist, lost 6-3 to Sweden on Friday in the quarterfinals. The other quarterfinal games saw Canada beat Denmark 8-0; Russia defeat the United States 3-2; and Slovakia defeat the Czech Republic 3-0.

Here is a closer look at the semifinal games:


Two of the highest-scoring teams in the tournament should provide plenty of offensive fireworks. Sweden, unbeaten in five games, ranks second with 24 goals while Russia is third with 16 goals. Sweden has beat Russia in 10 of their past 11 games at the WJC; the past five have been one-goal games.

Sweden beat Russia 2-1 in the semifinals of the 2014 WJC. The last time Russia beat Sweden was a 4-3 win in the semifinals in 2011 in Buffalo; that also was the last time Russia won gold at the tournament.

Forwards William Nylander (Toronto Maple Leafs) and Oskar Lindblom (Philadelphia Flyers) are tied for the tournament scoring lead with nine points. Lindblom and Adrian Kempe (Los Angeles Kings) lead Sweden with four goals each. Nine players have at least three points, including defenseman Gustav Forsling (Vancouver Canucks), who leads all players at his position at the tournament with eight points.

Sweden beat Russia 3-2 Dec. 29 in a Group B preliminary-round game, with an even-strength goal by Axel Holmstrom (Detroit Red Wings) with 9:07 remaining in the third period breaking a 2-2 tie.

"We beat them already but we have to forget about that win and worry about this next game," Nylander said. "They have great players so we have to be ready to go at it right off the bat. Advancing in this tournament is always the goal. We know how good we are and we know that we're able to compete for a medal so you want to set your standards pretty high because you expect a lot from yourself."

Sweden has excelled on special teams, with the tournament's best power play (12-for-24, 50 percent) and penalty kill (16-for-16, 100 percent).

Goaltender Linus Soderstrom (New York Islanders) has five wins, a 1.80 goals-against average and .932 save percentage. He's played every minute of the tournament for Sweden.

Russia, which has averaged 3.2 goals per game, ranks fourth on the power play (6-for-20, 30 percent) but seventh on the penalty kill (14-for-19, 73.7 percent).

Ten players have at least one goal for Russia and eight players have three or more points, led by Pavel Buchnevich (New York Rangers), Ivan Barbashev (St. Louis Blues) and Vyacheslav Leshenko (2015 draft eligible) with five points each.

Defensively Ivan Provorov (2015 draft eligible) has done his best to impress in front of goaltenders Ilya Sorokin (New York Islanders) and Igor Shesterkin (New York Rangers). Shesterkin, who made 39 saves in the win against the United States, has a 1.67 GAA and .949 save percentage in three games. Sorokin has a 2.41 GAA and .903 save percentage in two games.

"It's going to be tough game because Russia has a lot of skilled players and tough players," Kempe said. "We need to come out the same way we did last game; we played well against them."


Canada beat Slovakia 8-0 when they played a Group A game Dec. 26, the opening game of the tournament.

Slovakia will have an uphill battle against a Canada team that is clicking on all offensive and defensive cylinders right now. The only setback occurred Friday when forward Robby Fabbri (St. Louis Blues) sustained a high right ankle sprain in the win against Denmark; he'll miss the remainder of the tournament. Fabbri had two goals, six points and a plus-7 rating in five games, including two goals and four points in the preliminary-round win against Slovakia.

Canada coach Benoit Groulx has received production throughout his lineup. Canada is averaging a tournament-best 5.8 goals per game, and has gotten at least one goal from 14 players; eight have at least four points.

The top line of Sam Reinhart (Buffalo Sabres) centering Max Domi (Arizona Coyotes) and Anthony Duclair (New York Rangers) has been Canada's best. Reinhart is tied with Sweden's Nylander and Lindblom for the tournament scoring lead with nine points (four goals, five assists). Domi has four goals and seven points, while Duclair has two goals and five points.

"Don't let the last game [against Slovakia] fool anyone because it's not fooling us," Reinhart said. "They've gotten better, and if they had a few breaks at the start that would have been a different game. We're not taking them lightly in the slightest."

Connor McDavid, the projected No. 1 pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, appears to be getting stronger and more confident each game. McDavid entered the tournament having missed five weeks after sustaining an injury to his right hand Nov. 11 but he flashed some offensive wizardry in the quarterfinal win against Denmark with one goal and two assists. McDavid has two goals, seven points and a plus-5 rating in five games.

Canada captain Curtis Lazar (Ottawa Senators), McDavid's roommate and linemate, is tied for the tournament lead with five goals. Nicolas Petan (Winnipeg Jets) has provided secondary scoring with one goal and eight points, and Lawson Crouse (2015 draft eligible), the youngest player on the roster, has one goal and three points.

"The coaches are always stressing good habits," Crouse said. "In a tournament like this you always have to play with good habits. Even though you're winning you still have to do the right things at the right time."

Crouse played a key role on a steadily improving fourth line, alongside Frederik Gauthier (Toronto Maple Leafs) and Nick Ritchie (Anaheim Ducks), against Denmark on Friday.

"We're three big bodies and we have to use them down low to bring pucks to the net," Gauthier said. "We can create scoring chances or just get some momentum and so far it's been great."

The shut-down defense pair of Shea Theodore (Anaheim Ducks) and Darnell Nurse (Edmonton Oilers) has been exceptional, and defenseman Joshua Morrissey (Winnipeg Jets) has one goal and three points but also has set the tone at the start of almost every game with a thunderous hit.

Canada has allowed a tournament-low four goals, and each goaltender has played well, but it will be Zachary Fucale (Montreal Canadiens) in goal against Slovakia, rather than Eric Comrie (Winnipeg Jets).

Fucale had 14 saves in the shutout of Denmark in the quarterfinals, and in three games Fucale has three wins, two shutouts a 0.33 GAA and .981 save percentage. It also will be the first time Groulx has started the same goaltender in back-to-back games; he had alternated Fucale and Comrie in the first five games.

Slovakia will look to captain Martin Reway (Montreal Canadiens), who leads Slovakia with four goals and six points. Linemate Peter Cehlarik (Boston Bruins) has two goals and three points. Each player scored a third-period goal in the quarterfinal victory against the Czech Republic.

Goaltender Denis Godla, who made 34 saves in the shutout against the Czech Republic, has three wins, a 2.43 GAA and a .935 save percentage. Slovakia has allowed 14 goals in five games.

In the preliminary round of the 2014 WJC, Slovakia did hold its own in a 5-3 loss to Canada, which included an empty-net goal for Canada with 1:20 remaining in regulation.


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