Russia needs to get its top players more ice time and play a perfect game to beat Canada, while Europe will need Jaroslav Halak to stand on his head again.
With the round robin of the World Cup in the books, it’s pretty safe to say that the tournament has exceeded everyone’s expectations.
The gimmick teams were a concern, but Team North America captured the hearts of everyone with their exhilarating and free-wheeling brand of hockey, while Team Europe shocked the world with a win over the Americans en route to a semifinal berth. Then there was the issue of whether the players would even care about this thing, and it’s pretty clear now that they did, just ask anyone on Team USA.
It’s been a great event so far with some exciting hockey, but the best is yet to come as we’re now down to the final four teams: Canada, Sweden, Russia, and Europe.
Before the World Cup started, we built projections for how the tournament likely shakes out, and they turned out pretty well for the most part. Canada and Sweden won their groups as predicted, North America and Europe were stronger than many expected, and Finland was the worst team there. That last one received the most backlash due to the country’s placing at previous best-on-bests, but this current lineup was low on talent and predictably struggled in a tough group.
In a short tournament for a sport as inherently random as hockey though, anything can happen which makes forecasting an inexact science. Team USA, for all its flaws, had a strong (but not its strongest) roster and dominated its non-Canadian competition, they just didn’t get the bounces at either end of the ice (they had an 869 PDO, woof). Probability isn’t destiny and that’s especially true when there’s only a single game that can decide a country’s fate.
That’s something important to keep in mind going into the semis as no team, no matter how strong, is a lock for the finals. Using the same method as the pre-tournament projections, here’s how the final four likely plays out along with each team’s chances of winning the World Cup.
Semifinal 1: Canada vs. Russia
World Cup Chances: 47.1%
Best Performers according to Game Score: Sidney Crosby (5.5), Jonathan Toews (5.1), Matt Duchene (4.9)
Canada was a juggernaut during the round robin and it doesn’t look like they’re slowing down any time soon. Every player contributed to the cause with an average Game Score – a combination of many important box score stats and the engine for these projections – of 1.04 per game. Considering Game Score is on the same scale as points-per-game, that’s a very impressive total for the average player. Canada has executed a pretty perfect game plan that thrives off puck management. After adjusting for score, they had roughly 64 percent of the 5-on-5 shot attempts during the round robin. It’ll take a great game from Russia and an off one from Canada for them to be beaten.
World Cup Chances: 14.0%
Best Performers according to Game Score: Sergei Bobrovsky (5.4), Vladimir Tarasenko (2.4), Alex Ovechkin (2.4)
While Sergei Bobrovsky has been stellar for the team, the Russian skaters have been mostly unspectacular during their opening three games. They struggled to generate chances against Sweden’s defence and they’ll likely have the same trouble against a Canadian team that has done very well at maintaining puck possession. Russia used some weirdly balanced forward deployment during the pre-tournament games and that didn’t change during the round robin either. There’s simply no reason Nikolay Kulemin should be averaging the second most ice-time or that Alex Ovechkin is only getting 15 minutes. Not to mention Tarasenko with the ninth most time. To beat Canada, Russia will need their best forwards playing more than they have (along with a healthy Pavel Datsyuk).
Semifinal 2: Sweden vs. Europe
World Cup Chances: 27.5%
Best Performers according to Game Score: Henrik Lundqvist (5.1), Erik Karlsson (4.0), Filip Forsberg (3.9)
Is it fair to say Sweden has left a lot to be desired so far? Karlsson and the Backstrom-Forsberg-Hornqvist line have been electric, but the rest of the skaters have been just okay. On paper they’re the second strongest team here, and they’ve earned five of a possible six points, but they haven’t looked great doing it. They had a good start against Russia, but were held in check by Finland, the worst team here, and were out-possessed by the Young Guns en route to defeat. They also got blitzed to start that game against Team North America, too. Lundqvist has been a wall in net, so it’s hard to worry too much, but the team in front needs to step up. They’ve got the best shot at taking down Canada, but not if they’re playing the way they have.
World Cup Chances: 11.3%
Best Performers according to Game Score: Jaroslav Halak (6.0), Mats Zuccarello (2.9), Christian Ehrhoff (2.1)
The weakest team left, but they’ve still got a reasonable chance at moving on and even winning the whole thing. Before the tournament started, I wrote “they probably won’t make it, but stranger things have happened and this is a team with Jaroslav Halak, who’s known to steal games from those much more deserving,” and wouldn’t you know it, that’s exactly what he did. Halak has the highest Game Score at the World Cup so far (mostly because of that game against Team USA) and there’s a huge discrepancy between him and the next best guy on Europe. He’s the early MVP of the tournament. This team will need more of that magic if they want to beat Sweden and make it to the final, although they’ve already done it once before.