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THN at the World Junior Championship: Cinderellas and recovering powers make for a better tournament

Sweden played the upstart Slovakians in the semifinal and won 5-3. Slovakia will play for the bronze medal. (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)

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Sweden played the upstart Slovakians in the semifinal and won 5-3. Slovakia will play for the bronze medal. (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)

OTTAWA – A semifinal in the World Junior Championship between Sweden and Slovakia would have been unfathomable a few years ago. Heck, it seemed unfathomable before this year’s tournament started.

But the fact it came about can be viewed as nothing but a positive for a tournament that over the years has become almost as predictable as women’s hockey. The fact is the WJC needs European countries not named Russia to be better in this tournament and that’s what it got when the Swedes and Slovaks hooked up for an entertaining semifinal that was won 5-3 by the Swedes.

With the win, Sweden moved onto the final of the WJC, a development that was totally expected before the tournament began. The Slovaks, meanwhile, move onto the bronze medal game, a development that turned out to be a complete shock.

But it wasn’t long ago that both programs had fallen upon hard times. The Swedes had become a victim of the NHL’s dead puck disease and the Slovaks were hemorrhaging from a lack of resources and from players leaving their domestic program in droves to play in North America. In fact, it got so bad in Slovakia even Slovak coaches were telling the best young players to leave because the junior program there was so weak.

Going into the tournament, most observers were lamenting the decline of both the Czech and Slovak programs and while having a 10-team tournament with fodder such as Kazakhstan and Latvia doesn’t help, the decline in those programs has also contributed to the diminished legitimacy of the tournament.

But both Sweden and Slovakia have made strides. The Swedes are no longer obsessed with playing mind-numbingly boring hockey and have stressed the right amount of individualism and creativity.

“We play for more fun and see how the game goes,” said Swedish junior coach Par Marts. “Even when we’re leading 3-2 in the third period we’re going for the next goal and we’re not sitting back and defeating ourselves as much.”

There were times when Swedish teams in this tournament would have bowed out at the kind adversity they faced Saturday in the game against Slovakia, but this team did not allow itself to get rattled and stuck to its game plan of playing aggressive hockey.

The Slovaks, meanwhile, still face a huge problem with their players migrating to the Canadian League, but two years ago it made the bold move of keeping its best available under-20 players together and playing as the junior national team in the Slovak Elite League against men.

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“I think it helps, but still it’s difficult because they’re playing on the big rink and nobody hits too much,” said Slovak goalie Jaroslav Janus, who plays in the Ontario League for the Erie Otters. “In this tournament they finish every check and that is tough for our guys. But they’re playing against older players and some guys who played in the NHL, so I think that helps them a lot.”

Slovak coach Stefan Mikes said the changes in the Slovak program have begun to bear fruit in this tournament.

“There is no question the level of play is going up and I think you could see that here,” Mikes said. “We don’t want to just stay in the A Group, we want to compete and surprise some people. We don’t always play good looking hockey, but we play purposefully and we play to have some good results.”

All of which is good news for a tournament that desperately needs more than a small handful of teams to be competitive.

UPON CLOSER EXAMINATION…
One of the problems for scouts in this tournament is that everything is so magnified, which causes something of an interesting quandary when it comes to players such as Tomas Tatar and Jaroslav Janus of Slovakia.

Tatar is eligible for this year’s draft and Janus went undrafted last year, but both have been brilliant for the Slovaks. Tatar scored twice in the semifinal to boost his tournament total to six and Janus followed up a spectacular performance against USA with a 47-save performance against Sweden.

It won’t guarantee either will be drafted, but their performance here forces scouts to take a much closer look at them the rest of this season.

“Anyone can get hot for 10 days, so now you go back and look at what they do the rest of this year,” a scout said. “If you watched Janus in Erie, he’s all right, but he hasn’t been this good. But you can’t deny what he did here on the biggest stage.”

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