Buffalo's Mikhail Grigorenko has helped Russia dominate offensively in the early going at the World Junior Championships.
With the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships firmly under way, the tournament should deliver some thrills as it heads into the quarterfinals to start the new year.
Top teams such as the United States, Sweden and Russia have played up to their high standards so far, but the normally dominant Canadians have struggled.
There are still plenty of games left to play, and each team remaining in the race has a shot at winning the whole thing.
Here’s the schedule for the remaining slate of games. Each will be televised on NHL Network, all times ET.
|Date and Time||Round||Matchup|
|Jan. 2, 6 a.m.||Quarterfinals||TBD|
|Jan. 2, 8:30 a.m.||Quarterfinals||TBD|
|Jan. 2, 11 a.m.||Quarterfinals||TBD|
|Jan. 2, 1:30 p.m.||Quarterfinals||TBD|
|Jan. 4, 9 a.m.||Semifinals||TBD|
|Jan. 4, 1 p.m.||Semifinals||TBD|
|Jan. 5, 9 a.m.||Bronze Medal Game||TBD|
|Jan. 5, 1 p.m.||Gold Medal Game||TBD|
This edition of the world juniors hasn’t held a ton of surprises just yet, but the coming rounds will be compelling to watch all the same.
The U.S. squad proved to be dominant offensively when it won the whole tournament a year ago, and it doesn’t seem like much has changed this time around.
The Americans have scored 19 goals in the tournament already, tied for the lead with Sweden, and have been particularly dominant on the power play.
They’ve scored 11 of those goals with the man advantage and have converted on a stunning 61 percent of their power-play chances.
Their superior passing has really made the difference for them so far, as this beautifully executed play against the Germans on Dec. 29 demonstrates:
Sweden and Russia have both experienced similar offensive success.
The top two point scorers in the tournament are both Swedes, as forwards Alexander Weisenberg and Filip Forsberg have each proved dominant in the early going.
The Russians trail the Americans and Swedes for the lead in goals by just one and have scored with efficiency thanks to players such as Damir Zhafyarov and Mikhail Grigorenko.
The Russian squad has to be particularly encouraged about Grigorenko’s early performance. He spent some time in the NHL this season with the Buffalo Sabres, but the team ultimately tried to send him back to their AHL team, the Quebec Remparts.
However, the Remparts had already reached their import player limit, leaving Grigorenko with an uncertain future that many expected could hamper his confidence.
“Obviously, I was worried about it,” he told Championat.com (h/t Yahoo! Sports). “But at the same time I realized there was nothing I could do. That was my club’s decision. I was going to practices every day, tried not to think about it and work hard out there. In the end we were able to find a solution that was beneficial for both - the Sabres and myself. They let me play at the world junior championship. They told me to play like a leader and gain experience.”
He has played like a leader so far, with two goals and two assists in the early going.
Russia’s goalkeeping has also really helped the team’s chances. Andrei Vasilevski has allowed just one goal so far and has really buoyed the defense.
The one contender that hasn’t lived up to expectations is Team Canada.
The squad fell to the lowly Czech Republic in a 5-4 shootout on Dec. 28, marking head coach Brent Sutter's first-ever loss in the tournament.
The team displayed plenty of offensive firepower, but defense and goalkeeping seem like they’ll be major concerns, as Canada.com’s Daniel Nugent-Bowman explains:
The problem was Canada was forced to play come back all night.
For the fifth-straight game, dating back to the three pre-tournament affairs, Canada surrendered the first goal.
This time, they gave up the opening marker 7:10 into the first frame when David Kampf scored.
The Canadians never led at any point, despite fighting back from a 2-1 deficit on goals by Jonathan Drouin (power play), Aaron Ekblad (short-handed) and Charles Hudon.
And two Czech goals by Vojtech Tomecek and Jakub Vrana were the direct result of missed coverages off defensive zone faceoffs.
The loss to the Czechs is hardly the end of the world, but there’s no doubt that it puts a lot of pressure on a team that’s already heavily scrutinized by the Canadian press.
Overall, it seems like the United States, Sweden and Russia have the inside tracks to the tournament title.
It’s impossible to rule out the Canadians, though, despite their early struggles. The future NHL talent on their roster is just too great for them to stay down for too long.
How the Canadians respond to the early loss will be key. If they can answer in a big way, the tournament will be wide open between these contenders.