Today in Montreal are the semifinals of the 2017 World Junior Championship, or the World Juniors. This is a yearly international tournament for men under the age of 20. The four teams remaining in these two games are from countries who are all hockey powerhouses: Canada, Russia, Sweden, and The United States. Which means that we should be in for a pair of barnburners (a.k.a. thrilling, high drama matches!).
A coming out party
The World Juniors a big deal in the hockey world (and at least in Canada, watching it has become a big holiday break ritual over recent years). It's often the moment when future stars announce themselves to the rest of the planet. If you think of all of today's biggest NHL stars—Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Carey Price, Patrick Kane, John Tavares, and on and on—it's difficult to think of many who didn't somehow come up big as youngsters at the World Juniors. In fact, some of the hottest players in the NHL right now, like Connor McDavid, Patrik Laine, Auston Matthews, and Mitch Marner, are all still young enough play in this year's tournament (they're just too good for their NHL teams to let them go for a couple weeks).
The quality of play is high. The stakes? They're high, too. (Come on, these guys are playing for their countries!) What's not to love? Exactly! So let's get you set for the games!
Semifinal 1: U.S.A. vs. Russia (3:00pm EST)
When you add on its history as the Soviet Union, Russia has won more total medals (34) at the World Juniors than any other nation. This year's team is certainly not the strongest they've had in the last few years. They already lost twice in the opening rounds of the tournament. But the Russians have made a habit of starting slow, only to come on really strong by the end. Like all Russian teams, these players are fast and full of skill.
Meanwhile, the United States is one of only two teams that haven't lost yet at this year's World Juniors. They beat host nation Canada convincingly and have already beaten the Russians, too. That match was a close U.S. victory: 3–2. Will the Americans repeat their success? Or will the Russians learn from the experience and once again turn it on late in the tournament?
Semifinal 2: Canada vs. Sweden (7:30pm EST)
It's pretty rare that Canada isn't considered a threat to win gold at the World Juniors, and this year is no different. They've already won gold more times than any country (16). They're the host nation, too, which never hurts. Overall, Canada has looked very good this year. The only mark against them was a 3–1 loss to the U.S.A. on New Year's Eve. They also have had a few issues deciding on a top goaltender, moving back and forth between Connor Ingram and Carter Hart. Still, this is a typical Canadian team: well coached, full of talent, and not many weaknesses.
Sweden is a slightly tougher team to judge. On one hand, they haven't lost a game so far. They've scored 26 goals and let in only 9 in five matches. So they're really good, right. Yes, they are, but... they also played in the weaker Group A in the opening rounds. (Canada, Russia, and the U.S.A. all played in the much stronger Group B.) So sure, Sweden has pretty much walked all over every team they've faced. But none of those teams are anything as good as Canada.
In the end, this game will probably come down to one thing: who takes the most penalties. Canada's undoing against the U.S. were the penalties that they took. Meanwhile, Sweden has scored five times on the power play in their last two matches. But if both teams keep it even, this will be a really close one.