Quarterfinal play begins today at 3:30 PM when Canada takes on Switzerland and continues this evening as the pesky Finns play the confusing Russians. While those games will certainly have all of the thrills we've come to associate with the World Juniors, it's the relegation round robin that should produce true desperation. Relegation is a uniquely European concept - punish the worst teams in the league by placing them in a playoff and forcing the loser into a lower division. Rather than reward failure like North American sports do, European leagues promote the best team or two teams from a lower division. Though it's not possible because of arena size, if the NHL and AHL were to use such a system, the Oilers and Leafs would be in the AHL this season and the Hershey Bears and Texas Stars would be in the NHL.
When it comes to relegation, players, coaches, managers and owners are desperate to avoid demotion. Want to see people perform as if their jobs depend on it? Put them in a relegation tournament.
Martin Marincin is still out with a suspension, but Slovakia is the far more talented team in this matchup. Norway's only hope is goaltender Lars Volden, the kid who held the Russians at bay for two periods. Volden stopped 37 of 40 shots through two periods against Russia and Norway was down 3-2. For Norway to have a chance, Volden is going to have to play at that same level for an entire game.
Slovakia needs a win in regulation and a Czech win over Germany to ensure they return to the top division for the 2012 tournament.
Germany is trying to send the the Slovaks to the second division and needs a win against The Czech Republic to do so. The Germans have been rather unimpressive in this tournament and the biggest letdowns have been those players drafted by NHL teams. If they want to keep their countrymen in the top division in 2012, it's time for Philipp Grubauer, Tom Kuhnhackl, Konrad Abeltshause, Mirko Hoefflin, and David Elsner to come up with their best games of this tournament. One German player of interest is Matthias Plachta. Plachta has four points in six U20 games and even though he's not a scorer in the German leagues, he's got size and he's willingly engaged physically throughout the tournament. Our man on site claims Plachta was the best player on the ice in the Germany - Finland game and the best German on the ice against Slovakia. A down on their luck NHL team might want to give Plachta an invite to some sort of camp.
A Czech win keeps them in the top division for 2012.
Mark Visentin draws in for Canada, replacing Olivier Roy. Visentin was a shocking first round draft choice by the Phoenix Coyotes but he's played brilliantly for the Niagara Ice Dogs this year. The Swiss have solidified themselves as one of the new big six teams internationally, but they aren't talented enough to play with the Canadians or the Americans. Nino Niederreiter has been brilliant thus far, and if the Swiss have a chance, it's Nino's size and skill that will have to deliver the scoring chances. Goaltender Benjamin Conz has been outstanding and except for a split second against the United States when his shoulder came off of the post, he shut the Americans down. If Conz should put on a similar display against the Canadians (minus the wrap-around gaffe), the Swiss could make life miserable for Canada.
I've made repeated jokes about Canada being a "hard-working team" lacking talent, and I've picked on the media involved in spreading this nonsensical narrative. Against Sweden, the TSN team talked about how slow the Canadians were in comparison to the Swedes and how the Canadians needed to play hard and hit hard to take the skill out of the game. I think Canadian coach Dave Cameron believes in this too. I get that Canadian hockey is all about hard-working prairie kids and Don Cherry, but let's not kid ourselves - Team Canada is the most skilled team in the tournament, even if they are using a fourth overall pick as their checking center. They're scoring loads of goals not because they wear a hard hat, but because they're good. Olivier Roy gave up two weak goals against Sweden, but Robin Lehner made Roy look like Patrick Roy in that game. I think maybe it's time for Canada and Canadians to embrace their speed, skill and size and win the tournament.
The winner of this game gets a quiet but mean United States team in the semi-finals.
Toni Rajala is 29th in scoring in the WJCs with four points - all assists. Curtis Hamilton is 30th in scoring with three points - all goals. I'm not sure who should center these two in Oklahoma City next year, but they seem like a match made in heaven.
The Finns took the Americans to overtime and since then they've not been challenged. The Russians were smoked by the Canadians and shut out by the Swedes, watched Norway's goaltender stand on his head and torched the Czech Republic. The Russians have loads of skill, but the Finns team defense has been tremendous and they may have been the best team in Group A in the preliminary round. These teams play opposite games - team defense versus individual offensive skill. Typically, team defense usually wins that battle, so I think the Finns should be favored in this one, though not by much.
The winner of this game draws Sweden in the semi-finals.