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World Junior Championship quarterfinal preview

by Adam Kimelman

Canada is in an odd position entering the quarterfinals of the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship in Helsinki, Finland.

No nation has had more success than Canada at the annual under-20 international tournament, winning gold 16 times, including at the 2015 WJC. The next closest team is Russia with 13 golds.

But after two losses in the preliminary round for the first time since 1998, Canada enters its first game of the knockout round against host Finland on Saturday at Hartwall Arena in Helsinki as the underdog.

"We're major underdogs, I think," defenseman Joe Hicketts, a Detroit Red Wings prospect, said according to TSN.

Canada coach Dave Lowry said: "[Finland] would definitely be the favorite, I would have to say. It's going to be a challenge."

The Canada-Finland game is one of four quarterfinal games to be played Saturday. Sweden plays Slovakia, Russia faces Denmark and the United States plays the Czech Republic.

Here's a look at each quarterfinal game:

Canada vs. Finland (3:30 p.m. ET; NHLN)

Finland coach Jukka Jalonen told TSN he isn't buying the underdog Canada storyline.

"Canada is never an underdog in this tournament," he said. "They're always favorites. We are underdogs."

Dylan Strome (Arizona Coyotes), Canada's leading scorer with five points, certainly feels confident.

"I think they're going to be scared to play us," he told TSN. "I think they should be. It's going to be a physical game. They've got some young guys that score goals; we've got some older guys that score goals. It's going to be a high-pace game and the crowd will be crazy. But we're ready for it."

Finland scored a tournament-high 23 goals in the preliminary round and went 8-for-16 on the power play.

Leading the way was its top line of left wing Jesse Puljujarvi and right wing Patrik Laine -- both top prospects for the 2016 NHL Draft -- and center Sebastian Aho (Carolina Hurricanes). Puljujarvi leads the tournament with five goals and 12 points; Aho is second with nine points; Laine is tied for second with four goals and tied for third with eight points.

Slowing the big line will be Canada's focus. That includes staying out of the penalty box; they allowed five power-play goals in 11 times shorthanded.

"Discipline is going to be a key for us," Lowry told TSN. "If we take more than three minor penalties we put ourselves in a really difficult position."

Canada also needs more offensively than the nine even-strength goals it scored during group play. Jake Virtanen (Vancouver Canucks), one of four returning players from the 2015 WJC championship team and the only player on the roster with NHL experience, has zero points.

Neither team announced who would start in goal Saturday.

United States vs. Czech Republic (1 p.m. ET; NHLN)

Auston Matthews has lived up to the hype for the United States, who face Czech Republic on Saturday in the WJC quarterfinals. (Photo: Getty Images)

The best line for the U.S. has been top 2016 draft prospects center Auston Matthews and left wing Matthew Tkachuk with right wing Colin White (Ottawa Senators). They were put together after Alex DeBrincat was injured against Sweden. Playing together for the final two games of the preliminary round they combined for seven goals and nine assists. Three of Matthews' team-leading four goals have come since that line was put together.

It was a bit of luck White gelled with Matthews and Tkachuk. Coach Ron Wilson initially tried Brock Boeser (Vancouver Canucks) there but that didn't work. White was Wilson's second choice because he was hesitant to move White away from center Sonny Milano (Columbus Blue Jackets) and left wing Christian Dvorak (Arizona Coyotes).

"White is a great skater and he's fairly big too (6-foot, 183 pounds)," Wilson told "He gets physical and I think that actually helps Tkachuk and Matthews get into their positions and also get some space. The three of them all understand the game and I've been pleased with their production."

The U.S. also has been strong defensively, tying Sweden for fewest goals allowed in group play with five. And they've killed off nine of a tournament-low 10 shorthanded situations.

To continue that strong defensive effort, Wilson said smarter breakouts will be key.

"What we've got to do is keep the puck out of the middle when we're breaking out," he said. "It's a habit we're still working on. We can't force it. We have to take what we're given. If we move the puck and our centermen come down low to help the [defensemen] for an easy breakout I think the rest of our game, as long as we continue the process, will put us in an opportunity to succeed."

The Czech Republic got a boost of offense when David Pastrnak (Boston Bruins) arrived; in three games he had one goal and three assists. Michael Spacek (Winnipeg Jets) leads Finland with five points. The Czechs scored 12 of their 13 goals at even strength.

Sweden vs. Slovakia (9:30 a.m. ET; NHLN)

Sweden was the only team to win all four of its preliminary-round games in regulation. And they did it without their best player for almost the entirety of it.

William Nylander (Toronto Maple Leafs) hasn't played since sustaining a head injury in the first period of the first game against Switzerland. He reportedly did not practice Friday, further clouding his status for the quarterfinals.

Goalie Linus Soderstrom (New York Islanders) is also questionable for the quarterfinals. He left the 5-2 win against Canada on Thursday with 3:49 left in the third period. Soderstrom leads the tournament with a .942 save percentage, and his 1.62 goals-against average is second best. Felix Sandstrom (Philadelphia Flyers) started one game in the preliminary round, making nine saves in a shutout of Denmark.

Slovakia finished the preliminary round with eight goals in four games, the second-fewest of the eight quarterfinalists. Matus Sukel had a hand in half of them with one goal and three assists.

Russia vs. Denmark (7 a.m. ET; NHLN)

Russia finished first in Group B while scoring eight even-strength goals in four games. So how did they have success? They had the best special teams play in the tournament.

The penalty-killing unit leads the WJC at 93.3 percent. And it certainly was tested, as Russia was shorthanded 15 times, second-most in the tournament after relegation series-bound Switzerland.

The power play also was strong, scoring five times in 14 chances; their 35.7 percent success rate is second to Finland.

Maxim Lazarev leads Russia with five points. Ivan Provorov (Philadelphia Flyers) is third among all defensemen with four points.

Denmark advanced to the medal round for the second straight tournament because of their tournament-opening 2-1 win against Switzerland. They scored two goals in their other three games.

Forwards Mathias From and Alexander True lead Denmark with two points each.


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