Like every good summer binge watch, the 2022 IIHF World Junior Championship hasn't been short on drama.
Its biggest plot twist so far? The ouster of defending gold medal champion Team USA, which fell 4-2 to Czechia in Wednesday's quarterfinal matchup. The United States had been unbeaten through preliminary tournament action, and Logan Cooley had them up 1-0 over Czechia midway through the first period. Then Czechia responded with three unanswered goals from there.
The U.S. game really began deteriorating in the second, partially due to top defenseman Luke Hughes being hobbled by an injury suffered earlier in the night. Penalty troubles didn't help matters either, and by the final buzzer it was tournament over for USA. They walked away with a fifth-place finish, failing to reach the podium for only the second time in seven years.
Four teams are now left to battle it out in Friday's pair of semifinal games.
Can Czechia continue its magical run with another upset against Canada? Who has the upper hand between neighboring nations Sweden and Finland?
It's all up ahead.
Get set for the final three games of the WJC with a primer on where we've been, who's leading the way, and what sort of finale is on tap.
What's happened so far?
Quick recap: The 2022 World Juniors was originally meant to take place in December and January. But a crush of COVID-19 cases among participating teams forced the IIHF to postpone -- and subsequently reschedule -- the event. Results accrued from games that were played back then were nullified. Every team was given a clean slate.
This time around, Russia and Belarus were banned from the tournament following Russia's invasion of the Ukraine in February. Latvia entered the field instead, joining Group A with Canada, Czechia, Finland and Slovakia. Group B was comprised of Austria, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland and the USA.
Many teams iced different lineups in August than they would have last December. Owen Power and Kaiden Guhle didn't return for Canada. Matty Beniers and Jake Sanderson were absent for the USA. On it went like that for most countries, though the on-ice groups remained reliably strong.
Preliminary round action got underway at Rogers Place in Edmonton on Aug. 9. Each team played four games, and the top eight nations advanced. Canada and the USA topped their respective group leaderboards with 12 points (4-0-0). Slovakia (1-3) and Austria (0-4) were eliminated.
All four quarterfinal games took place on Wednesday. Finland topped Germany 5-2, Sweden slipped by Latvia 2-1, Canada rolled over the Swiss 6-3, and Czechia unseated the USA 4-2.
That brings us to Friday's action. Canada and Czechia will meet in the first semifinal at 4 p.m. ET, followed by a nightcap between Sweden and Finland at 8 p.m. ET.
Now, let's dive a little deeper.
Canada vs. Czechia
Historically speaking, there's a real David vs. Goliath thing happening with Canada and Czechia. Canada has won gold a tournament-high 18 times. Czechia (playing as the Czech Republic and Czechoslovakia) has medalled 14 times -- total. And Canada already beat Czechia 4-1 in the prelims.
But in a World Juniors tournament that's been anything but ordinary, anything can happen. Just ask the USA.
The Americans were rightly stunned by Wednesday's outcome. Czechia hasn't medaled at the World Juniors since 2005, and stumbled badly in a 5-2 preliminary round loss against Latvia, who entered that tilt 0-27 all-time in the preliminary round.
That defeat embarrassed Czechia. It appears to have galvanized them, too, if Wednesday's result over the USA is any indication.
Czechia's path is only tougher from here, since Canada hasn't lost in this tourney, period. At least not on the scoreboard. The team did see top forward Ridly Greig leave Wednesday's quarterfinal game early with an injury from which he did not return. Greig, a first-round selection by Ottawa in 2020, has been terrific, netting three goals and six points in the tournament so far, and was named Canada's MVP in two of four prelim games. His status for Friday remains unclear.
Greig's absence would be a blow for Canada regardless, but particularly after it struggled to find an offensive groove against the Swiss. Canada boasts the tournament's leading scorer in captain Mason McTavish (seven goals and 14 points) plus projected 2023 first-overall draft pick Connor Bedard (three goals and seven assists). But it was Logan Stankoven stepping up in the quarters to pace Canada with two goals and one assist. Dylan Garand shut the door in net with a 22-save performance.
To that end, Canada juggled its lines at practice on Thursday. Greig did not participate, so coach Dave Cameron had his star power spread out with McTavish centering the top line, Stankoven in the middle on their second unit and Bedard on the third line. How many of those changes stick for Friday's game? We'll see.
Canada will expect Stankoven to stay hot against Czechia, which holds plenty of talent -- including 12 NHL draftees -- in its ranks. Captain Jan Mysak has scored three goals in the tournament. David Jiricek, Petr Hauser and Matyas Sapovaliv have been strong. And Czechia's goaltender Tomas Suchanek is among the tournament's best (3.02 goals-against average).
Does Czechia have another upset in them? Or will Canada cruise to another gold medal bout?
Sweden vs. Finland
For a minute there, it looked like Latvia might be the quarterfinals' Cinderella story.
The underdog's single win over Czechia in the prelims earned them a shot at Sweden on Wednesday and the plucky upstarts gave it everything they had. That game was tied 1-1 until midway through the third, when Sweden's captain Emil Andrae broke the deadlock with a goal through traffic.
Latvia managed only 12 shots on Sweden netminder Jesper Wallstedt but still pushed them to the brink. Wallstedt and his teammates must certainly improve before facing Finland.
That country made quick work of Germany in the quarters. Finland's power play was a red-hot 4-for-6, led by Roby Jarventie's pair of goals and one each from Roni Hirvonen and Joel Maatta.
Sweden will have to raise its offensive game to match what Finland can produce. Other than Fabian Lysell sniffing around the net against Latvia, most of Sweden's forwards were hamstrung on the periphery. And interestingly, it's been defenseman Andrae leading the team in goals (four) and points (eight) so far. Sweden requires more from its forwards, especially to make plays between the dots and in challenging Finnish goaltender Leevi Merilainen from in tight. The Swedes could help out their own netminders with more consistent defensive performances, too.
Will the semifinals bring a low-scoring goalie duel? Or will both offenses finally ignite?
The tournament's top talents
The World Junior Championship often generates some unexpected performances.
Then there are those you could definitely see coming.
Case in point: Canada's McTavish. The third-overall pick by Anaheim in 2021 entered this tournament sour following the Hamilton Bulldogs' Memorial Cup loss to Saint John's last month. He used that as fuel to dominate for Canada, tallying seven goals and 14 points through five games. It's a potentially historic run for McTavish, who could surpass Brayden Schenn and Dale McCourt (18 points each) as Canada's all-time points-leader in a single World Junior Championship.
McTavish, 19, has appeared in only nine NHL games to date, scoring two goals and three points. What McTavish is exhibiting now suggests he's primed to make a major push for an NHL job come fall.
Sweden's Andrae could be looking to do the same. He's been a force throughout the tournament, not only pacing Sweden in goals (four) and points (eight) but playing superb defense as well. The Swedish captain breaks the puck out better than anyone, and has an active stick that deftly helps control attacking plays.
Andrae was drafted by Philadelphia at 54th overall in 2020 and has yet to make his NHL debut, but this past season playing in the Swedish Hockey League has given Andrae more necessary experience to get there. And a sterling performance at World Juniors doesn't hurt his case, either.
Czechia has had a few tournament darlings in its ranks, including center Kulich and forward Mysak. The latter is a second-round draft choice by Montreal in 2020 and he's stood out since producing a two-point performance in Czechia's opening win over Slovakia (Mysak has four goals and six points total now). Will the re-building Habs find space for him sooner than later?
And what about Kulich, a first-round choice by Buffalo in the 2022 draft? He stood out in Czechia's win over the USA, and has five points in five games so far. What could be bring to Sabres' training camp next month?
Finland has benefitted from an emerging star of their own in Jarventie. The 20-year-old was a second-round choice by Ottawa in 2020, and was at his tournament-best against Germany in the quarters. Jarventie's two goals and two assists put him at nine points to date, and if he can keep generating that way against Sweden it'll give Finland a great chance of reaching the gold medal game. Will there be enough progress there for Jarventie to see NHL time sooner than later? Time will tell.
Checking in on Connor Bedard
Bedard grabbed all the headlines going into this tournament. He's had to share some of that spotlight since, but the 17-year-old continues to turn heads.
The Vancouver native has already been pegged as the potential No. 1 overall pick in the 2023 draft. He is a terrific talent, explosive offensively and a smart two-way player. He's impressed in this tourney with a wicked wrist shot worthy of comparison to those wielded by current NHL stars.
He and McTavish had quick chemistry on Canada's top line, and together they've bulldozed the competition. Bedard netted three goals in early preliminary round action to sit near the top of the tournament's scoring leaderboard from its outset.
And then there was that goal Bedard scored against Finland in Canada's final preliminary game, a beautiful bar-down strike that put Canada up 3-0. It was a shot that came so fast off Bedard's stick that Merilainen probably heard it whizz by more than he ever saw the puck coming.
That the score came after Bedard and his top-line teammates spent about a minute defending in their own end was just more testament to how strong Bedard's game has become. He's also Canada's second leading scorer in the tournament now, with three goals and seven points.
Bedard didn't add to that total against Switzerland in the quarterfinals, held off the scoresheet entirely through Canada's 6-3 victory. There was some clear frustration settling in over the lack of offensive chances Bedard found and he channelled that edge into increased physical play instead.
Canada's top line -- which added Will Cuylle to start against the Swiss -- has spent too much time in its own end lately, leading to fewer opportunities for Bedard and McTavish. But the way Bedard continued to show other facets of his game was a net positive for the teenage phenom. And regardless of where he lines up (with Greig in or out), Bedard can always turn up the heat.
There's no time like the present for Bedard to get rolling again, though. Czechia should be on high alert.
Gold medal game prediction
Four great teams have reached the semifinals. Only two will play for gold.
My prediction? Canada vs. Finland.
Both teams have gotten superstar turns at times. They've also had different players contribute in key roles at critical times. Stankoven came through in the quarters, Brennan Othmann has looked good and Olen Zellweger has been strong. Garand has been great in net. Then there's the game-breaking potential for Canada's top line, which has been held in check of late. That can't last much longer, not when McTavish and Bedard know what's on the line. While Czechia was excellent topping the USA, they're inconsistent. Pulling off back-to-back upsets against two top nations would be a stunning feat (even if Canada does have to play without Greig).
Sweden and Finland should be evenly matched, but the Swedes' recent lack of offense doesn't bode well. We know Sweden will get great goaltending from Wallstedt, but Finland has a terrific netminder in Merilainen too. And the way Finland's special teams caught fire in the quarters should concern a Swedish team that has struggled at times to generate any chances.
If Canada and Finland do meet in the final, count on Canada to secure another gold. There just aren't many holes in this Canadian team. Top to bottom they've been arguably this tournament's most consistent performer so far. The prediction here is that Canada should make the home crowd happy with another championship victory.
There's always room for a shocker at the World Juniors, though. Are we in for another one? Stay tuned to find out!