Hello from Bratislava!
Apologies for being off the grid for a bit, but it was a looooong travel day. I left YVR on Tuesday at 8 a.m. Pacific and flew through Toronto to Vienna. After about an hour-long coach bus ride, I arrived here in Bratislava at about 11 a.m. local time on Wednesday.
During my two-hour stopover in Toronto, I was able to catch the third period of Canada's 3-0 win over the U.S., which earned Troy Stecher and the Canadians first place in Group A.
Good for them. On paper, I thought the U.S. has the stronger roster this year, but Alain Vigneault has gotten the Canadians playing better and better as the tournament has gone along.
Canada tied with first-place Russia from Group B to lead the tournament with 36 goals through the seven-game preliminary round, and the Canadians tied with Finland for the second-fewest goals against, with 11. Their plus-25 goal differential is also tied for second behind the Russians, along with the second-place Czechs from Group B.
With Canada now icing seven healthy defensemen, Troy Stecher's ice time dropped against the U.S. He played 15:21 in Monday's 5-0 win over Norway but saw just 8:27 on Tuesday.
All told, Stecher was one of five Canadian defensemen to play all seven preliminary-round games, along with Darnell Nurse, Damon Severson, Shea Theodore and Thomas Chabot. He averaged 14:53 and was a plus-six, with a goal and an assist.
The good news for Canada is that, by winning their group, they avoided a super-tough quarterfinal matchup against the Russians or the Swedes. The bad news for me is that they're still in Kosice, where they'll face off against Switzerland in the early game on Thursday.
The other bad news is that Switzerland was the team that knocked Canada out in the semis last year. I feel like the Swiss roster is a little weaker this year. No Timo Meier, although Nino Niederreiter did make it over for the last preliminary-round game on Tuesday after the Carolina Hurricanes got eliminated from the playoffs - and scored. Last year, Switzerland's run to the silver medal was largely fueled by lights-out goaltending from Leondardo Genoni. He has been good this year, too - giving up five goals in three games for a 1.70 GAA and .945 save percentage.
For Canada, Matt Murray will probably get the start again after shutting out the Americans. He has given up eight goals in four games, for a 2.01 GAA and .921 save percentage.
One other issue for Canada: they'll be without their leading scorer, Anthony Mantha, who is suspended for one game after his headshot on Colin White on Tuesday. Mantha has reminded us what a dominant scorer he was in junior, when he put up 57-63-120 in 57 games with Val D'Or in 2013-14. He's 7-5-12 through seven games here in Slovakia, tied with Russia's Nikita Gusev for fifth overall.
The leader, of course, is Sweden's William Nylander, who holds a two-point lead over second-place Nikita Kucherov and Jakub Voracek with 5-12-17 in seven games. After clinching their quarterfinal berth with Henrik Lundqvist in net in a tighter-than-they'd-have-liked 5-4 win over Latvia on Monday, the Swedes turned to Jacob Markstrom in their 7-4 loss to the powerhouse Russians on Tuesday in a game that didn't mean much.
As a result, Markstrom finishes the round robin with eight goals allowed in two games and an .843 save percentage. Loui Eriksson averaged 14:30 of ice time and was 1-3-4 through the round robin, but also put up a team-worst minus-five. And for all the concern about Elias Pettersson underperforming, he finished tied with Patric Hornqvist for second on team scoring with nine points and was even in plus-minus, averaging 17:13 a game.
Sweden finished third in Group B, so they had to travel to Kosice to face the Finns in the quarterfinal. That should be a winnable game - after starting well with wins over Canada and the Slovaks, the Finns dropped an overtime decision to the U.S. before losing to Germany in their final round-robin game, when they could have clinched top spot in their group.
Finland's not-so-secret weapon, Kaapo Kakko, slowed down as the tournament went along, too. After starting hot with five goals in his first two games, he picked up just two more points in the last five games, finishing with 6-1-7. Feeling fatigued as the tournament ground on, or did teams get better at neutralizing him after they got a bit of a book on him?
Regardless, Kakko has done enough in this tournament to stir up a real sense of doubt about whether or not Jack Hughes will still go first overall at the draft in June. Jack was a healthy scratch for the U.S. against Canada on Tuesday, so he finishes the round robin with just one assist after averaging 14:03 of ice time in his six games.
Jack took home a new international hockey honour on Wednesday.
His ridiculous schedule continues next week, at the Scouting Combine in Buffalo.
Quinn skipped his fitness testing at the combine last year, after he got home from Worlds. At this point, it sounds like Jack will be participating.
Speaking of Quinn, he finishes up with three assists and is a plus-seven after the preliminary round. His ice time jumped to 20:10 a game this year, a significant jump from 12:13 last year, despite the presence of minute-muncher Ryan Suter on the U.S. blue line this time around.
The Americans have added Zach Werenski to their lineup as well, but face a big task when they go up against the Russians here in Bratislava in the early game on Thursday.
Cory Schneider has played the key games for the U.S. and was named player of the game against Canada on Tuesday, despite taking the loss. Schneider has given up 11 goals in five games to post a solid 2.17 GAA and .924 save percentage, while Thatcher Demko has been solid when called upon with four goals against in his two wins for a 2.00 GAA and .920 save percentage.
The Russians absolutely rolled through their preliminary round, outscoring their opposition 36-7 on their way to a perfect 7-0-0 record. Alexander Georgiev was perfect, with shutouts in both his games. Andrei Vasilevskiy also had two shutouts in his five starts; he gave up two goals to Norway in the tournament opener, one to Latvia and four to Sweden on Tuesday, but three of those came in garbage time after the Russians had built a 6-1 lead.
The Russians often seem to flame out rather unexpectedly in this tournament; they haven't won gold since 2014, the year before I started covering the event. But this is the most dominant I've seen them, on a roster that's deep from top to bottom. Is this the year that they go all the way, or will the U.S. be able to pull off a mini-Miracle on Ice on Thursday?
In the late game here in Bratislava on Thursday, the Czechs will take on Germany. That's a game that could go either way. The Czechs have been strong but sometimes have issues with discipline, while the Germans finished out their round robin on a very positive note, following up their 8-1 loss to Canada with wins over the U.S. and Finland.
After Thursday's games, just four teams will remain. I'm hoping for wins for the U.S., Canada and Sweden, just so I'll get a chance to see all the Canucks here in Bratislava this weekend.
Crews were hard at work this afternoon when I stopped by the arena to pick up my credential, working on the ice and polishing the glass.
Enjoy the games!