All three teams featuring Canucks prospects were in action on Friday, as the 2019 World Hockey Championship tournament kicked off in Slovakia. Unfortunately, all three teams got off on the wrong foot, losing their opening games in upsets.
Troy Stecher and Canada dropped their opener to Finland 3-1. Then Quinn Hughes and Team USA fell to the host team, Slovakia, 4-1. Finally, Elias Pettersson, Loui Eriksson, and Sweden lost to Czechia 5-2.
Each of those is a surprising upset, even if FInland, Slovakia, and Czechia are all respectable hockey countries. Finland, in particular, has won the tournament in recent memory, taking home gold in 2011, and they also have silver medals in 2014 and 2016.
This year, however, Finland was expected to have a weaker roster. Finnish stars like Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen are still in the NHL playoffs, while Mikko Rantanen was playing through an injury for the Colorado Avalanche, so seems doubtful for the tournament. Finland doesn’t have a single full-time NHLer on their roster, with just Henri Jokiharju and Juho Lammikko playing NHL games last season.
Against Canada, top prospect Kaapo Kakko, who is expected to go second overall at the 2019 draft, led the way for Finland. He opened the scoring with a gorgeous goal, taking a slick tip pass from Toni Rajala, keeping his feet as he was tripped up on a partial breakaway, and tucking the puck around Matt Murray.
Canada would respond with a goal on the power play from Jonathan Marchessault, but Arttu Ilomaki gave Finland the 2-1 lead in the third period before Kakko sealed the game with an empty netter.
The lone Canuck on Team Canada, Troy Stecher, played a limited role. He traded off time on the third pairing with Dante Fabbro, both of them playing alongside Shea Theodore. He played just 9:21 total and looked fine in those minimal minutes, but also didn’t get much of a chance to prove himself.
Stecher did get a few more minutes in the third period, so perhaps he’ll get more of an opportunity as the tournament progresses. It seems like he might need to convince the Canadian coaching staff that he can be a good penalty killer despite his size, similar to how he convinced the Canucks coaching staff.
Quinn Hughes was the only Canuck in action for Team USA, as Thatcher Demko watched this particular game from the bench with Cory Schneider getting the start. Schneider was shaky at times, however, particularly on Slovakia’s fourth goal, so there might be an opportunity for Demko to steal the net as the tournament moves along.
Hughes played 18:19, tied for fourth in ice time among USA defencemen. He was partnered with fellow NCAA standout Adam Fox, who played alongside Canucks prospect Jack Rathbone for Harvard University this past season.
Just like last year, Hughes didn’t look the least bit out of place among the other NHLers. He was slick and smooth moving the puck out of the defensive zone and made several exciting dashes up the ice. Alas, it was all for nought, as Hughes was held off the scoresheet.
Hughes played on the second power play unit, with Ryan Suter taking the first unit. That makes some sense, as you tend to defer to the veteran with plenty of experience on an NHL power play. The only issue is that Suter is arguably not very good at being a power play quarterback. Team USA might be best served letting Hughes take the reins of the first unit.
The win for Slovakia, playing in front of their countrymen, was huge. The crowd erupted with every goal, hit, and questionable penalty call or non-call, of which there were many. Slovakia spread the scoring around, with Matus Sukel, Erik Cernak, Tomas Tatar, and Michal Kristof all tallying goals, while Patrik Rybar was stupendous in net, finishing with 25 saves on 26 shots.
That shot total should tell you, however, that the US was simply outplayed. Slovakia out-shot USA 36-to-32 and never let up. Even with a two-goal lead in the third, Slovakia still had 14 shots on goal.
Finally, there’s Czechia upsetting Sweden.
This was a chippy, leaning-towards-dirty game. It seemed like Czechia was determined to get under the skin of the Swedes, who responded in kind. Dmitrij Jaskin was particularly ornery: on one play, he boarded Adam Larsson with no call, then blatantly dove to the ice as soon as Larsson touched him.
Frankly, Jaskin should have gotten the only penalties — one for boarding and one for diving — but the referees gave coincidental minors to Larsson and Jaskin. It was ludicrous and a sign of how out of hand this game would get, with the referees content to let dangerous plays go uncalled. It wasn’t pretty.
Elias Pettersson had a solid game for Sweden, playing on the top line with Patric Hornqvist and William Nylander. He was named the Best Player in the losing effort and it’s easy to understand why. His stupendous skill was on display all game.
Pettersson assisted on Sweden’s first goal of the tournament and it was a fantastic play. Pettersson pressured Czech defenceman Jan Kolar and blocked his clearance attempt. Then, as Kolar got his stick in Pettersson’s legs and tripped him, Pettersson pivoted in mid-air and sent a blind backhand pass back through his legs to Hornqvist, who provided the finish on his own rebound.
Elias Pettersson nearly blocked the Czech’s third goal that gave them a 3-2 lead early in the third period. With Henrik Lundqvist impeded by Dominik Simon, Pettersson tried to play goalie behind him and nearly made the stop. Of course, he also did some impeding of Lundqvist himself, so it’s unclear how much he helped.
Then there was this insane pass by Pettersson to Nylander. This is just absurd; who does this? He uses his stick to protect the puck from being poked away, then drops the puck to Nylander with his skate.
Unfortunately, Nylander was unable to turn this into a goal as he cut to the net, or this could have been one of the goals of the tournament.
Loui Eriksson, on the other hand, was a bit of a mixed bag. He had four shots on goal, including one on a breakaway pass from Pettersson. That shot caught just a piece of Czech goaltender Patrik Bartosak, then hit the post. He was an inch away from a great goal and another assist for Pettersson.
At the same time, Eriksson was also on the ice for three Czech goals, though he wasn’t at fault for two of them. The first Czech goal was scored by Eriksson’s man, Jakub Vrana, from the point. He could’ve kept a closer gap and gotten in the shooting lane for that one. On Vrana’s second goal, however, he had just come on the ice on a line change, and then he was also on the ice for Jan Kovar’s empty net goal.
Overall, Eriksson was fine, and he certainly seems hungry to prove that he can still produce points. We’ll see if his four-shot performance is a harbinger of things to come in this tournament.
Jacob Markstrom, who suffered an injury in a pre-tournament game, wasn't on the Swedish roster, but is expected to be added later in the tournament once his shoulder has recovered.
The early upsets could be a wakeup call for Canada, USA, and Sweden, but they shouldn’t necessarily cost them a spot in the quarterfinals.
Canada and USA also have Germany, Denmark, France, and Great Britain in Group A, all of whom they should finish above in the preliminary round. Barring a surprise from Germany or Denmark, both teams should be able to move on.
Meanwhile, Sweden has Switzerland, Latvia, Norway, Austria, and Italy in Group B. While Switzerland and Latvia can be tough opponents, Sweden shouldn’t have any trouble finishing high enough in the preliminary round to make it to the quarterfinals.