The IIHF is often quietly judicious in competitive booking. For instance, when an “Asia” qualification spot at the senior Worlds failed to produce swift improvement in the Japanese or Korean squads, it was nixed without any ticker tape. Similar wisdom is shown in the inclusion of less nations in Women’s World Championship and Men’s U20 (World Junior) brackets. North American pros and prospects dominate at both events. It’s hard to find 4 evenly-matched teams at the WJC, let alone 10.
That might be changing as of 2020…and faster than anyone anticipated. The World Men’s U20 has become a tournament of surprises.
Take Sunday’s match-up of Finland and Kazakhstan at Werk Arena. In WJC days of yore (like 2017) such a pairing would be an afterthought, a chance for Finland’s 19-year-olds to rest and let developing green-horns gobble up the points. Not in 2019. Not only has Kazakhstan played extremely well in 2 straight games, Group A and Group B are rife with upsets and strange outcomes. Finland can’t afford to take any opponent lightly – perhaps nobody can.
Junior Lions had Team Sweden on the ropes as soon as the event in the Czech Republic began on Thursday. Finland twice scored to take 1-goal leads despite getting badly out-shot in the contest, as Tre-Kronor faced problems solving talented GK Justus Annunen. Sweden’s Samuel Fagamo scored to tie the game 2-2 late in the 2nd period, however, and 17-year-old phenom Alexander Holtz scored the 3-2 winner for Sweden on the man-advantage in overtime.
Finland bounced right back on Friday. Day 2 opponent Slovakia was preparing for a “relegation semifinal” with Kazakhstan, and clearly no match for a Finnish lineup of nearly 20 domestic Liiga professionals (and a big, flashy Minnesota Golden Gopher named Sampo Ranta) who scored 4 goals in just over 13 minutes of the 2nd frame on route to an 8-1 victory.
Kazakhstan, meanwhile, has experienced a journey of hope and heartbreak in at the 2020 World Juniors. The players stood up to a veteran Swiss team but lost anyway, then did everything but win a frustrating contest with Slovakia on Day 2…just hours after mind-numbing news of tragedy back home hit social media. 40+ hours of rest isn’t much consolation when Finland and Sweden are next on the schedule. But the Kazakh U20 organization has to feel good about several positives too.
Play along the Kazakhstan blue line, already expected to be a bright spot, has been stellar. The attack has shined with solid puck-control, precision passing, and spirited special-teams play. Team KAZ has generated offense while short-handed, a giant leap from what the squad was expected to be capable of in 2020. Maxim Musorov has earned a serious look from NHL scouts with 3 goals in 2 games to back up his KHL and MHL resume. Goaltender Vladislav Nurek is warming to the task at hand.
Finland is a marked favorite in Sunday’s early Group A game. But gamblers rushing to take the Junior Lions (-4.5) might want to think twice, or at least read the final scores from Group B. Germany lit the lamp in a 6-3 loss to Team USA, then stunned host Czech Republic with a 4-3 triumph on Saturday.
That’s the same Czech U20 team which upset Russia on Thursday – the same Russia team that just shut-out Team Canada 6 to flippin’ 0…and I’ll stop before this becomes a folk song. Kazakhstan wasn’t expected to out-play Slovakia for much of 60:00 any more than Germany was touted to tear it up in a hostile venue.
European U20 programs are finding they can compete with North America by stacking juniors on the 3rd and 4th lines of professional clubs, which serves as a weighed-bat training ground for playing vs other juniors. Russia’s 6-0 win was not a fluke, and hopefully the sour Group B outcome has imbued Team Canada (and Team USA) with a sense of every-game urgency in a tournament full of deadly rivals.
The World U20 could grow up to be more like the senior Worlds. Favorites may be vulnerable in more WJC games than ever before. That can only be good news for upstarts like Kazakhstan and Germany.
No one will be surprised if Finland destroys Kazakhstan by 11 goals on Sunday, but there might not be quite as much chagrin as usual if it’s another unexpected corker. Parity left the NFL this season and wound up catching an overseas flight. Its arrival at the World Junior Championship is not a moment too soon.
Photo ATTN: Twitter.com/kallesson18