Published by hockeybuzz.com, 1-4-2017
The last time the IIHF World Junior Championships were held in Buffalo, NY, Russia defeated Canada for the gold medal and the U.S. defeated Sweden 4-2 for the bronze. Since then the Americans and Swedes have met twice in the medal rounds--in 2013 the U.S. beat Sweden for the gold medal in Ufa, Russia and in 2016 Team USA once again came out on top as they took home the bronze by thumping Team Sweden 8-3.
It's 2018, we're back in Buffalo and once again there is a U.S./Sweden matchup, this time for the opportunity to play in the gold-medal game.
Team Sweden, a favorite heading into the tournament, is the only remaining team to go undefeated in the preliminary round (3 wins and a shootout win vs. Russia) and is the top seed. Team USA has only one blemish on their record, a 3-2 loss vs. Slovakia the night before they were to play Team Canada in the tournament's first-ever outdoor game.
Today's matchup between the U.S. and Sweden at 4 pm is a faceoff between two strong teams and two of the tournaments top players--Casey Mittelstadt (USA) and Rasmus Dahlin (Sweden.)
Mittelstadt is very familiar to Buffalo Sabres fans as he was the team's first round pick (8th-overall) in the 2017 NHL Draft. The 6'0" 203 lb. center, who plays for the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers in NCAA D-I men's hockey, is leading the tournament in scoring with 10 points (4+6) in five games. He's also responsible for the goal of the tournament thus far (at the 1:18 mark of this USA Hockey video):
Sabres fans have been thrilled with Mittelstadt's play thus far. Not only has he scored the points, but many of them have been meaningful. The goal above tied the score at 2-2 with just over three minutes to play in the third period and in the game vs. Canada the next afternoon, Mittelstadt made two beautiful setups to help the Americans come back from a 3-1 deficit and eventually defeat Canada 4-3 in the shootout (he was inches away from a shootout goal that would have won the game.)
On the other side, defenseman Dahlin is the consensus first overall pick in the upcoming NHL Draft--defenseman. The smooth-skating, extremely poised 6'2" 183 lb. Dahlin has looked like a man amongst boys out there in the U-20 tournament, and he should be as he's spent the last two seasons in Sweden's top hockey league playing and succeeding against men.
With the Buffalo Sabres presently in 30th place in the league, many in Sabreland have visions of Dahlin in the Blue and Gold with some lottery luck.
Forgotten in the largeness of those two players are two other Sabres prospects playing for Sweden--forwards Alexander Nylander (2016, 8th) and Marcus Davidsson (2017, 37th.)
There hasn't been much fanfare with Davidsson as he was taken in the second round and very little is known about him as he plays a game far from the limelight. In is 2017 Sabres draft review, Kris Baker of sabresprospects.com/Sabres.com called him "hard-working, two-way forward who is excellent in the corners and in front of the net."
After yesterday's games, Baker had this to say about the 6'1" 198 lb. forward at Sabres.com, "The role Davidsson is playing for Sweden in this tournament is exactly the role he'll be expected to play when he arrives in North America. He's committed to the work in front of him on every shift, and in that regard he has proven himself quite well leading up to the semifinal round."
Nylander has been a bit of a different story. Like Ken Campbell of The Hockey News writes, "It’s far too early to write off Alex Nylander. But right about now might be a good time to start wondering a little about him."
Buffalo's first pick in the 2016 draft is on loan from the Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League in part because of his struggles making the transition to the pro game. Last year the 6'0" 176 lb. winger had a difficult time for the Amerks as he scored 10 goals and added 18 assists in 65 games while charting a minus-24 plus/minus rating for a 26th place team. He suffered a groin injury early in the off season that kept him of the ice until mid-November and started the season in Rochester.
It's safe to say that it took a while for him to get up to speed after being off the ice for so long, but he had some difficulties leading up to the decision to let him play in the WJC scoring in only one of his last eight games (1+1.) The thought process that may have been involved in the loan was for him to regain his form against his peers but to date, it hasn't panned out as expected. Campbell points out that Nylander was "very, very quite" in Sweden's 3-2 quarterfinal win over Slovakia and quoted him as saying post-game, "I had a really bad game, which is unacceptable. I have to step it up a lot more next game. I’ve got to play a lot better. I wasn’t moving my feet and create more plays and use the stuff I’m good at, trying to get shots at the net and working hard. I’ve got to work harder.”
To those who scouted Nylander, it's not too much of a surprise. There were quite a few who called him the most skilled player in the draft but as Kyle Woodlief of the Redline Report wrote post-draft, "[he] spends too much time on the perimeter and if he's not scoring, he's not helping."
This isn't the only game featuring Sabres prospects. In the nightcap, Sabres d-prospect Vojtech Budik and the Czech's will face off against Team Canada at 8pm. Baker said of Budik's game against Finland in the quarterfinals "[he] did a nice job throughout the contest using his size and long reach to break up plays and chip pucks off the boards" and "proved to be a calming influence in his 26:09 of action to help the Czechs reach the semifinals for the first time since 2005."
The Buffalo Sabres will be in action tonight against the Minnesota Wild for the first time since dropping the 10th annual Winter Classic in overtime on New Year's Day. Coach Phil Housley said yesterday that, based upon the way his team practiced, he didn't think they'd suffer from a post Winter Classic hangover. And they better be sharp as the Wild have been hot at home. As Mike Harrington of the Buffalo News pointed out, Minnesota is 10-1-1 in their last 12 starts at XCel Energy Center and are 13-4-2 overall.
For their part, the Sabres are coming off of their most successful month of the season. However, as their 4-3-5 December record might indicate, it hasn't been that great of a season so far. Some have called it a stealth tank while others attribute their 30th place standing to an abysmal start complete with injuries and the look of a team finding out about themselves individually and finding their way around the way the NHL is being played these days as a team.
The Sabres have been playing their best hockey of the season lately and as mentioned after the 3-2 overtime loss to the NY Rangers in the Winter Classic, for maybe the first time this year they're looking like a group that's actually playing like a team.
Should they continue to progress like they have as of late, they could end up a bit higher in the overall standings and have a much less chance of winning the draft lottery and selecting Dahlin or even in the top-three. And for those entertaining playoff thoughts, the Sabres are presently 15 points out of a playoff spot with eight teams to jump. Although not impossible, it is highly improbable that they make a run like that.
Some of the focus tonight includes the return of defenseman Marco Scandella and forward Jason Pominville to Minnesota, the team that traded them to the Buffalo Sabres in the off season. Outside of that, it's a Buffalo team that looks as if it's turned the corner and is on an upward swing (however slow it may be) and a Minnesota team that's one point away from the second wild card spot in the Western Conference.
The Sabres lost to the Wild 5-4 back in November dropping them to 3-6-1 in their last 10 vs. Minnesota. In a weird quirk, Buffalo is 7-3-0 in their last 10 on the road in the series.
Housley seems to have found some good combinations for his top-nine up front and his top-four on defense and according to yesterday's practice he'll continue that formula with these projected lines and d-pairings:
Robin Lehner will probably get the nod in net.
Of note: Housley was the head coach in 2013 when Team USA defeated Team Sweden in the WJC gold medal game and Sabres defenseman Jake McCabe was the captain of that team.
The Rochester Americans are off until tomorrow night when they begin a back-to-back home set vs. the Bridgeport Sound Tigers (NYI) and the Lehigh Valley Phantoms (PHI) on Saturday.