MONTREAL -- If the preliminary round of the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship proved anything it's that international competition brings out the best in the top junior-aged hockey players in the world.
How else could you explain Slovakia earning a 2-1 victory against defending champion Finland, Switzerland thumping tournament contender Czech Republic 5-2, and Denmark's fantastic locker room celebration after winning for the first time in the top division of the WJC, a 4-3 shootout victory against Switzerland.
While the occasional upset is par for the course at the WJC in recent years, the perennial favorites always seem to be vying for the grand prize in the end. This year is no exception as the United States, Canada, Sweden and Russia are four of the eight teams to advance into the playoff round of the tournament, which begins Friday.
There have been four different champions at the past four tournaments: Russia in 2011, Sweden in 2012, the United States in 2013 and Finland in 2014. But Finland needed a 2-0 victory against Germany in their final preliminary-round game Wednesday to qualify for the medal round as the fourth seed in Group A.
The last time a host nation won gold at the WJC was 2009, when Canada celebrated its fifth straight championship in Ottawa. That also was the last time Canada won a WJC gold medal.
Canada will be looking to end a two-year medal drought this year; it won bronze in 2012 when the tournament was held in Calgary but lost to Russia in the bronze-medal game at the 2013 and 2014 tournaments. This year, though, Canada enters the medal round as the No. 1 seed in Group A after four straight wins and 12 points, capped by a 5-3 victory against the United States on New Year's Eve to secure the top seed.
The winner of each quarterfinal game will advance to the semifinals at Air Canada Centre in Toronto on Sunday at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. ET. The semifinal survivors advance to the gold-medal game at ACC on Monday at 8 p.m. ET; the losers will play for bronze at ACC at 4 p.m. ET on Monday.
Here's a look at the quarterfinal games Friday:
Canada vs. Denmark (Air Canada Center, Toronto; 8 p.m. ET, NHLN-US): Canada coach Benoit Groulx is going to take the same approach against Denmark as he did in Canada's four victories in the preliminary round and for good reason. Canada (4-0-0-0, 12 points) has scored the most goals (21) and allowed the fewest (four) in the tournament, has the best power play (6-for-12, 50.0 percent) and has the second-best penalty-killing unit (13-of-14, 92.8 percent). The top line of Sam Reinhart (Buffalo Sabres) centering Anthony Duclair (New York Rangers) and Max Domi (Arizona Coyotes) has been exceptional, totaling nine goals and 19 points. Reinhart leads Canada with eight points (three goals, five assists), and Domi (four goals, three assists) and Nicolas Petan (one goal, six assists) each have seven points.
The shut-down defense pair of Shea Theodore (Anaheim Ducks) and Darnell Nurse (Edmonton Oilers) limited top 2015 NHL Draft prospect Jack Eichel to one assist and a minus-3 rating in the victory against the United States. Canada center Connor McDavid, who is projected to be the No. 1 pick in the 2015 draft, has one goal, four points and a plus-1 rating. Goaltenders Eric Comrie (Winnipeg Jets) and Zachary Fucale (Montreal Canadiens) each have won two games. On Thursday Groulx said Fucale would be in goal against Denmark; Fucale had a 0.50 goals-against average and .975 save percentage in the preliminary round.
Denmark (0-1-2-1, four points), which is making its first appearance in the medal round of the top division of the WJC, has been led offensively by Oliver Bjorkstrand (Columbus Blue Jackets), who has four goals, five points and 20 shots on goal. Defensively, goaltender Georg Sorensen, who was passed over at the 2014 NHL Draft, was stellar in a 4-3 shootout victory against Switzerland on Dec. 30. Despite his numbers (3.70 GAA, .908 save percentage), the 19-year-old remains a big part of the team's success.
United States vs. Russia (Bell Centre, Montreal; 1 p.m. ET, NHLN-US): Each team is looking to rebound following losses on New Year's Eve. The United States lost to Canada, 5-3, while Russia was defeated 4-1 by Czech Republic. Russia has 10 players with at least one goal while the United States has nine. The United States has been the least penalized team in the tournament (13 minor penalties, 26 minutes) and has allowed three fewer goals (9-6) than Russia in four games.
The United States (2-1-0-1, eight points) has received top production from center Dylan Larkin (Detroit Red Wings), who leads the U.S. with five goals and seven points. Larkin's line, with Sonny Milano (Columbus Blue Jackets) and Hudson Fasching (Buffalo Sabres), has accounted for eight goals and 14 points. Larkin and Fasching share the U.S. lead with a plus-7 rating; Milano has two goals and four points.
The young defense corps held its own in the preliminary round but will need to step up a notch in the medal round. Goaltender Thatcher Demko (Vancouver Canucks) has done well, stopping 85 of 89 shots in three games, with a 1.31 GAA and .955 save percentage. Russia eliminated the United States in the quarterfinal round of the 2014 WJC on its way to winning the bronze medal.
Russia (1-1-0-2, five points) has three players with four points each: Ivan Barbashev (St. Louis Blues), Vyacheslav Leschenko (2015 draft eligible) and Pavel Buchnevich (New York Rangers). Goaltenders Ilya Sorokin (New York Islanders) and Igor Shesterkin (New York Rangers) each played two games in the preliminary round.
Sweden vs. Finland (Air Canada Centre, Toronto; 3 p.m. ET): A rematch of the gold-medal game from the 2014 WJC features Sweden, which rolled through preliminary round play unbeaten (4-0-0-0, 12 points) against Finland (1-0-1-2, four points), the defending gold medalists who needed a win against Germany its final preliminary-round game to make the medal round.
Just three players have scored for Finland: Forwards Artturi Lehkonen (Montreal Canadiens) and Mikko Rantanen (2015 draft eligible), and defenseman Julius Honka (Dallas Stars). Rantanen, who NHL Central Scouting projects as a first-round choice in the 2015 NHL Draft, leads Finland with three goals on nine shots. His linemate, 16-year-old Jesse Puljujarvi (2016 draft eligible), doesn't have a point but leads Finland with 23 shots. Goaltender Ville Husso (St. Louis Blues) has one regulation win, one shootout loss, a 0.96 GAA and a .967 save percentage. Finland has been the second-least penalized team in the tournament with 14 minor penalties totaling 28 minutes.
Sweden has been led on offense by center William Nylander (Toronto Maple Leafs) and left wing Oskar Lindblom (Philadelphia Flyers) with seven points apiece, and center Adrian Kempe (Los Angeles Kings) has five points. Sweden, which last celebrated a WJC title in 2012, is second in goals scored (18), second in power-play efficiency (9-for-19, 47.4 percent), first in penalty killing (12-for-12) and third in team save percentage (.940). Defenseman Gustav Forsling (Vancouver Canucks) has two goals and six points and goaltender Linus Soderstrom (New York Islanders) won all four games for Sweden.
Czech Republic vs. Slovakia (Bell Centre, Montreal; 5 p.m. ET, NHLN-US): The Czech Republic (1-1-0-2, five points) was given new life after a 4-1 victory against Russia on New Year's Eve. The regulation win, and accompanying three points, moved the Czech Republic three spots in the standings to No. 2 in Group B.
The Czech Republic has been led offensively by David Pastrnak (Boston Bruins), Jakub Vrana (Washington Capitals) and Pavel Zacha (2015 draft eligible), and defenseman Jan Kostalek (Winnipeg Jets). The Czechs have been outscored 14-12 in four games and ranks ninth with an .849 save percentage. They also are the second-most penalized team in the tournament, averaging nearly 18 minutes in penalties each game.
Slovakia (2-0-0-2, six points), which had wins against Finland (2-1) and Germany (5-2), hasn't finished higher than sixth at the WJC since 2010. Forward Martin Reway (Montreal Canadiens) leads Slovakia with three goals and five points. Defenseman Erik Cernak (2015 draft eligible) has played well in his three games; he was suspended one game for an illegal check against Finland. Goaltender Denis Godla has two wins, two losses, a 3.12 GAA and a .919 save percentage.