When the World Junior Championship started a little more than a week ago, 10 teams containing the world’s best under-20 men’s hockey players took to the ice in Toronto and Montreal.
Following a week of preliminary round games, four teams from each bracket made the jump to the quarterfinal round. On Friday, Sweden and Finland; the United States and Russia; Canada and Denmark and the Czech Republic and Slovakia played, all vying for a spot in the semifinal round and the chance to play for a medal. After it was all said and done, four teams, Sweden, Russia, Canada and Slovakia came out victorious and moved on to Sunday’s semifinal games.
“The tournament is so small,” said Preds defenseman Ryan Ellis, who competed for Canada at the World Junior tournament for three years from 2009-11. “You only play six or seven games, so you really have to put everything you’ve got into each game, they all count so much toward that tournament.”
Sunday’s first semifinal matchup will take place at 3 p.m. CT between Sweden and Russia.
Sweden is looking to win and move into their third-straight Gold Medal game. A familiar face missing from the Swedish roster this year is that of Preds rookie sensation Filip Forsberg. Forsberg, who was a member of Sweden’s World Junior team for the past three seasons and captain for the last two, finished his tenure with the junior national team with one Gold medal (2012) and two silvers (2013, 2014).
Despite being in the midst of his first full NHL season, Forsberg has been doing his best to keep up with his former team and is quick to recall the experiences he gained by playing in the tournament.
“It was unbelievable,” Forsberg said. “I played it three times, and I had a good experience in all three of them. We had a lot of success in the tournament and it was a great event. You play against the best players in the world that are your age, and it’s great to get to match yourself against them.”
Sweden’s opponent in Sunday’s semifinal is Russia, the only team remaining in the event with a Predators prospect on their roster. Vladislav Kamenev, who was Nashville’s second choice, 42nd overall (second round) in the 2014 Draft, has played in all five of Russia’s games, tallying two points (1g-1a) and a plus-1 rating. Russia, who has won a Gold, silver and two bronze in the past four years, is in search of their fifth medal in as many tries.
The puck drops for the second semifinal game between Canada and Slovakia on Sunday at 7 p.m. CT.
Slovakia defeated the Czech Republic to earn their spot in the semifinals and is looking for their first medal as an independent country at the event (Czechoslovakia earned the bronze medal in 1993).
After taking home medals in 14-consecutive tournaments, including a streak of five gold medals from 2005-09, Canada has been held off the medal podium the past two years. As the event returned to Canadian ice this season in Toronto and Montreal, seeing the team again climb the medal stand is at the forefront of many fans’ minds.
“Growing up, watching the tournament and then being able to wear the Canada jersey on home soil, it was very exciting,” Ellis said. “It was a great honor and I wish the guys all the best.”
With five Preds, in addition to Ellis, alumni of the Canadian World Junior team, it’s a good bet that many in the Nashville locker room will take a special interest in the score come Sunday night.
Outside of the four teams remaining in medal contention, several Preds prospects made appearances in the tournament.
Finland (finished in seventh place)
Juuse Saros, goalie
- Started two of Finland’s five games
- Finished with a .875 save percentage and a 3.03 goals-against average
Joonas Lyytinen, defenseman
- Played in all five of Finland’s games
- Tallied one assist and a +3 rating for the tournament
Switzerland (finished in ninth place)
Kevin Fiala, forward
- As an alternate captain for Switzerland, played in all five Swiss games
- Was voted Switzerland’s Player of the Game vs. the Czech Republic
- Led the Swiss in goals (4) and tied for third in points (4g-1a-5pts) during the tournament
- His four goals tied him for second among all tournament players
- Finished with a plus-6 rating and a spot in the tournament’s Top 15 in plus/minus
No matter the final scores and medal standings after the semifinal games and Gold and bronze medal matchups on Monday, the World Junior Championship is a holiday season tradition that annually showcases hockey’s future stars and is a great opportunity for fans to get a glimpse at a few of their team’s future stars.
“Everyone is flying up and down the ice trying to score goals,” Forsberg said, “They’re really good hockey players, future NHLers, and you get to see a lot of good players playing a lot of good hockey.”