After a riveting preliminary round, the World Cup semifinals have arrived with play beginning on Saturday.
After a 4-1 victory over Team Europe on Wednesday, Team Canada clinched the top spot in Group A, with Europe finishing in second. In Group B, Team Sweden clinched first place after a 4-3 overtime loss to Team North America Wednesday afternoon.
It came down to a battle between Team Russia and Team Finland on Thursday afternoon to determine second place in Group B. Russia’s 3-0 win eliminated Team North America from contention, thus locking Russia in for a date with destiny with heavy-favorite Team Canada on Saturday evening. Team Sweden and Team Europe will face off Sunday afternoon.
Note: To determine the semifinal match-ups, the winner of Group A faces the second-place finisher in Group B, while the Group B winner takes on the second-place finisher in Group A.
Team Canada vs. Team Russia
When: Saturday, 7 ET
Where: Air Canada Centre — Toronto, Ontario
How to Watch: US viewers — ESPN2 (TV)
Canadian viewers — CBC, TVA Sports (TV)
Playing the entire tournament in their home country, Team Canada only has the championship set in their sights. A loss would be devastating to the Canadians and their fan base, so expect the team’s best effort on Saturday. A team that outscored its opponents 14-3 in the preliminary round is a daunting foe for anyone across the ice.
Of the five players leading the tournament with four points, three of them are playing for Canada (Jonathan Toews, Sidney Crosby and Matt Duchene). The only player to skate in all three games and not score a point is Ryan O’Reilly, who has been just as dangerous as anyone every time the Canadians hem their opponents in the offensive zone — which is a lot.
Heading into the tournament, the only possible chink in the armor was the left side of the Canadian defense (Jay Bouwmeester, Jake Muzzin, Marc-Edouard Vlasic). Through three tournament games, the defense has been rock solid, only allowing 83 shots on their goaltenders (Carey Price and Corey Crawford), with much less of those being prime scoring opportunities. When there have been chances, though, the Canadian goaltenders have been up to the challenge.
For decades, Russia has been battling Canada for hockey supremacy in international play (and they were winning that battle through the 1970s and 1980s), but have not been up to the task in recent tournaments. However, if anyone is going to knock off Canada, Russia stands as good a chance as anyone.
The Russian roster features high-end talent through its top-six forward unit, including Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin. They have speed, skill and big bodies to work through any club’s defense in the tournament — including Canada.
Although the Russians have only outscored their opponents 8-5 (they posted an even goal differential before the 3-0 victory over Finland), they have received excellent goaltending from Sergei Bobrovsky. The 28-year-old netminder has been a human flyswatter for his country, with no contest being better than his 43-save performance against high-flying Team North America on Monday. His 18-save act in the third period wowed hockey fans across the world, including captain Ovechkin, who said after the game that “Bobrovsky was unbelievable.”
The Tuesday affair between Team USA and Team Canada was a marquee game for fans across North America, but, internationally, this is much higher billed. It’s the NHL’s favorite battle, Crosby vs. Ovechkin. It’s Bobrovsky vs. Price. It’s powerhouse vs. powerhouse.
While the Sweden vs. Europe game will likely be a little more wide open with stretch passes and offensive creativity throughout, the Canada vs. Russia game will provide plenty of board play and front-of-the-net battles. Although both teams possess unlimited offensive creativity, the bigger bodies from both sides will deter O-zone artistry. It is set to be a battle for the ages.
After all is said and done, this game has the potential to rank as one of the best in the World Cup of Hockey’s short existence, no matter who is last left standing.
Player to watch: Vladimir Tarasenko (RUS)
He tallied two goals in the tournament and the first was an absolute beaut (see video below). The Russian superstar has proven time and again to come through in big games for his NHL team, the St. Louis Blues. He saw a dismal end to his NHL postseason campaign a few months ago (zero points through 17 of 18 periods against the San Jose Sharks in the Western Conference Final), but he will be looking to personally rectify that with his Russian teammates.
Team Sweden vs. Team Europe
When: Sunday, 1 ET
Where: Air Canada Centre — Toronto, Ontario
How to Watch: US viewers — ESPN (TV)
Canadian viewers — CBC, TVA Sports (TV)
Team Sweden entered the tournament as a favorite to come out of Group B and they did not disappoint. With strong goaltending from Henrik Lundqvist and balanced scoring throughout the lineup, Sweden went 2-0-1 in preliminary play, although they narrowly outscored their opponents, 7-5.
A shining game for Team Sweden came unexpectedly. On Sunday morning, it was revealed that Lundqvist would miss the team’s opening contest with an illness. Jacob Markstrom, backup to Ryan Miller for the Vancouver Canucks, started in his place and shut Team Russia out until 33 seconds remained in the game. In total, Markstrom made 27 of 28 saves in the 2-1 victory.
Team Sweden’s balanced attack saw only six players go through the preliminaries without a point, and this list included one player who only skated in two games (Mikael Backlund), as well as three defensemen (Mattias Ekholm, Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Niklas Hjarlmarsson).
Team Europe enters the semifinals in somewhat surprising fashion. After losing to Team North America twice and being outscored 11-4, the conglomerate European group brought it together for a nice 6-2 win against an unprepared Swedish group in the exhibition round. Their first test in preliminaries was a hungry American squad, but Team Europe struck on the scoreboard early and capitalized on numerous odd-man rushes. Jaroslav Halak shut the door with 35 saves en route to a 3-0 blanking of Team USA.
The European roster set itself up nicely for a tilt with Team Czech Republic, as a win would ensure at least a tiebreaker would put them in contention for the semifinals. They defeated the Czechs 3-2 in overtime, thanks to a memorable Leon Draisaitl game-winning marker.
Leon Draisaitl game winner + ref cam angle pic.twitter.com/vFvIcnQgL5
— Marc Dumont (@MarcPDumont) September 19, 2016
The U.S.’s 4-2 loss to Canada the next evening guaranteed a spot in the semifinals, despite Europe’s game remaining against Canada.
Not playing for one particular country does not seem to faze Team Europe, as Slovakians such as Marian Hossa and Marian Gaborik are gelling well with Germans, such as Draisaitl and Tobias Reider. This can be said for all countries represented, as the European squad has brought it all together in a short timeframe.
It’s a shame this game won’t be played on international ice (15 feet wider than NHL ice). This contest should feature plenty of neutral-zone play and quick outs of defensive zones by skilled defensemen. Both clubs feature highly skilled forwards and puck-moving defensemen.
The battle in net should take center stage. Jaroslav Halak has appeared in every possible minute of the tournament for Europe (including most of the exhibition matches), and he has put up a dazzling .946 save percentage, along with a 1.98 goals-against average. Lundqvist has been as good as advertised and his sparkling .953 save percentage and 1.95 GAA further the point.
Although both teams feature plenty of firepower, the smaller NHL ice surface and quick-witted defensemen on both sides should keep this a tight-scoring contest.
Player to watch: Erik Karlsson (SWE)
Fast hands, quick feet and an eye for his teammates, Karlsson has three assists through three games and is a plus-1. He’s on the rink for every power play and every offensive attack. He’s the most dangerous player from the blue line in the tournament.
The victors of each match will go on to face each other in a three-game championship round, beginning Tuesday, Sept. 29 and ending on Saturday, Oct. 1 (if necessary).
To shop our entire store, click your link below: