Picked ninth overall in 2010, Mikael Granlund is giving Finland and Minnesota hockey fans something to cheer about. (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)
In an unpredictable tournament, Calgary got a pair of dream semifinal games thanks to quarterfinal victories by Finland and Russia. The Finns now take on archrival Sweden, while Russia renews acquaintances with Canada.
The Finns played just well enough to win against Slovakia, letting their opponents back into the game on several occasions. Having said that, when Finland needed offense, there were a number of players able to deliver, often in spectacular fashion.
At the top of the list were the Granlund brothers. Captain Mikael (10th overall, Minnesota in 2010) and younger brother Markus (45th overall, Calgary in '11) were incredible, scoring highlight goals and dazzling with their offensive instincts.
“They both have good hockey sense,” said linemate Joel Armia. “They move the puck well, both have a good shot – what more do you need?”
Armia himself was a force, too. At times, the Buffalo Sabres pick (16th overall in '11) was unstoppable, using his 6-foot-4, 196-pound frame to form a wall in front of the puck and using his nifty hands to throw off defenders when they got too close. Armia has had an up-and-down tournament, so Finland must be pleased he's hot now. The team will need offense from many places if they are to defeat their neighbors from Sweden and Armia will be key to that diversity, along with the Granlunds, Teemu Pulkkinen (111th overall, Detroit in '10) and Joonas Donskoi (99th overall, Florida in '10). All those forwards scored against Slovakia.
“We need all four lines in future games,” Armia said. “If there are only two lines scoring goals, that's not keeping up with the tournament.”
If Suomi has any chance against the balanced Swedes, they must play better defensively. Goalie Sami Aittokallio (107th overall, Colorado in '10) was just OK and the defense in front of him was not stellar.
Russia's win over the Czech Republic was the polar opposite. Czech goalie Petr Mrazek (141st overall, Detroit, '10) was spectacular all night, facing down Russian captain Evgeny Kuznetsov (26th overall, Washington, '10) on a number of awesome opportunities.
The game looked like a repeat of 2010 when Switzerland rode a hot goalie and a bit of offense to stun the Russians in the quarters, but the Czechs couldn't convert a late penalty with the game tied 1-1. The power play crew almost looked like it had no one who wanted to be a hero and a Grigori Zheldakov OT tally was the difference soon after.
The Russians were lulled to sleep by the Czechs for a long stretch in the second period and must avoid that against the more skilled and physical Canadians. Not to be outdone by his counterpart, Andrei Vasilevski was stunning in net for the Russians. He's a top prospect for the 2012 draft and showed why with several huge glove saves and great reactions on set Czech plays.
“Our goalie was better,” said Russian winger Nail Yakupov. “We won.”
That wasn't Yakupov's only defiant quote of the night. When asked about the fact the largely Canadian crowd openly favored the Czechs, the top 2012 draft prospect replied, “We don't need the fans. We're the best team at the world juniors.”
Similarly, Armia gave Sweden some bulletin board material: “We know Sweden is tough,” he said. “But we're playing our best right now and I think we're going to win the game.”
It definitely won't be a boring semifinal, that's for sure.
Ryan Kennedy will be filing regularly from thw World Junior Championship medal round in Calgary.
Kennedy, the co-author of Young Guns II, is THN's associate senior writer and a regular contributor to THN.com. His column appears Wednesdays and The Hot List appears Tuesdays. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/THNRyanKennedy.