Top 2016 draft prospect Auston Matthews continued his stellar international performance with a hat trick Saturday as the United States marched into the semifinals of the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship with a 7-0 triumph over the Czech Republic.
Nick Schmaltz (CHI) netted a goal and two assists to earn U.S. Player of the Game honors. Alex Nedeljkovic (CAR) made 28 saves for his first shutout of the tournament.
The American victory sets up a semifinal showdown with Russia, who escaped with an overtime victory over Denmark in the day’s first quarterfinal tilt.
Sabres prospect Will Borgen (2015, fourth round) picked up an assist in the win, giving him two points (0+2), five shots on goal and a plus-5 rating through five tournament appearances as part of the Americans’ second defensive pair with Louis Belpedio (MIN).
The U.S. wanted to get off to a quick start with that all-important first goal, and they did just that 5:17 into the action with a beautiful finish off the stick of Schmaltz.
After the U.S. forced a turnover beneath the Czech goal line, Brock Boeser (VAN) found Schmaltz cutting to the net, where he roofed a backhand over the right shoulder of Vitek Vancek (WAS) to make it a 1-0 game.
The U.S. would take a 2-0 advantage into the first intermission thanks to Christian Dvorak (ARI), who cleaned up the rebound of a Brandon Carlo (BOS) shot at the edge of the crease with 4:46 left on the clock.
Like he has done throughout the tournament, Matthews broke the game open with a pair of goals five minutes apart in the second period.
First, he wristed a shot glove side past Vanecek off an assist from Borgen to put the U.S. ahead 3-0. The Sabres prospect committed a turnover earlier in the shift, but atoned for the mistake by using his reach to keep the puck in the zone at the blue line by and push it to Matthews, who quickly pulled the trigger from the high slot at 4:15.
Matthews again found the back of the net at 9:08, taking a savvy pass from Schmaltz at the lower left faceoff circle and quickly depositing the puck into a yawning cage for the power play strike.
The Americans added one for good measure prior to the second intermission with a Scott Eansor unassisted short-handed marker with 1:56 left in the period. The Seattle Thunderbirds speedster forced a turnover at the U.S. blue line and cruised alone down the right side before slipping the puck between Vanecek’s legs with a nice forehand deke.
The U.S. began the final stanza with a 5-0 lead, but the comfortable advantage didn’t stop Matthews from adding to his stack.
Just 24 ticks in, the Arizona native circled high in the zone and ripped a shot up the gut through traffic to complete the hat trick and vault himself into the tournament scoring lead with seven goals.
The U.S. wrapped up their offensive attack with 8:07 left in regulation when Alex DeBrincat (2016) connected with a one-timer down low for his first goal of the tournament. Ryan MacInnis (ARI) earned an assist on the play to join DeBrincat in earning his first point.
And so the stage is set for what should be a very exciting semifinal round on Monday. The action kicks off with Sweden taking on rival Finland in a rematch of the 2014 gold medal game, followed by the U.S.-Russia battle in the nightcap (1 p.m. ET, NHL Network).
Finland vs. Canada
Elsewhere in quarterfinal action, Patrik Laine (2016) scored twice, including his second consecutive game-winner with 5:50 left in regulation, and added one assist as host Finland edged Canada 6-5. Sebastian Aho (CAR) continued his excellent tournament with a goal and two helpers, while 2016 draft prospects Jesse Puljujarvi and Olli Juolevi each contributed three assists.
Antti Kalapudas, Julius Nattinen (ANA) and Aleksi Saarela (NYR) also scored for the Finns. Mitch Marner (TOR) scored a pair of third-period goals for Canada. Travis Konecny (PHI) and Dylan Strome (ARI) Lawson Crouse (FLA) produced the earlier markers.
Russia vs. Denmark
Heavily favored Russia looked to be on cruise control with a Yegor Korshkov goal just 2:49 in, but they ended up having their hands full in claiming a 4-3 overtime victory over Denmark. Vladislav Kamenev (NSH) forced overtime with an extra attacker goal in the final minute of regulation, and then scored the game-winner in the extra session.
Defenseman Ivan Provorov (PHI) assisted on both of Kamenev’s tallies. Artur Lauta also scored for the Russians, while Markus Jensen, Thomas Olsen and Emil Christensen countered for the Danes.
Sweden vs. Slovakia
Sweden continued their tournament dominance with six different players contributing goals and Linus Soderstrom (NYI) stopping all 17 shots sent his way in a 6-0 blanking of Slovakia. Joel Eriksson Ek (MIN) and Oskar Lindblom (PHI) gave the Swedes a 2-0 lead at the first intermission.
Christoffer Ehn (DET) added a second-period marker, and Adrian Kempe (LAK), Jens Looke (ARI) and Alexander Nylander (2016) rounded out the scoring.
For more on all the youngsters in the Sabres pipeline, check out Kris Baker’s website, SabresProspects.com. You can also follow him on Twitter (@SabresProspects) for in-game updates throughout the week on any Buffalo prospects that are in action. Stay with Sabres.com throughout the World Junior Championship for recaps from Kris.