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Team USA vs Team Russia: IIHF Worlds Medal Round Preview and Predictions

USA vs Russian Hockey Logos
Well, well. If it’s not exactly the party we thought they’d be throwing in Bratislava.

It’s just happening a tad early, maybe.

The new playoff-seeding system at the Ice Hockey World Championship was designed to prevent gold-medal favorites taking on their fiercest rivals in elimination matches right away. But the IIHF can’t do anything about Team USA’s quirky 4th-place finish in Group A that earned Patrick Kane and a star-studded lineup a spot in the quarterfinals against a top seed.

And as 7 teams from Group B can tell you, the 1st seed from the other round-robin is…pretty OK.

Team Russia got off to a slow start in Slovakia, beating teams like Latvia, Austria and Norway in cautious, sloppy outcomes. Over the course of 10 days, it became clear that Andrei Vasilevsky and the Russian defense corps weren’t allowing many goals. At least not meaningful goals. Still, the Ruskie transition game wasn’t clicking, and even Alex Ovechkin was having a hard time lighting the lamp.

Then, on Tuesday, the Red Machine offense awoke against Team Sweden…and probably would have set some type of global International Ice Hockey Federation record for goals in 1 period if it wasn’t for the mind-boggling lopsided scores in the lower end of the Women’s divisions.

Except by clobbering Sweden, Russia guaranteed itself a quarterfinal slot against the Stars & Stripes this Thursday.

Team USA, meanwhile, has had a pretty good run for a squad that finished 4th in group play. Cory Schneider has impressed between the pipes. The Yanks have posted a 1-1-1 record against the teams seeded above them and whipped 3rd-seeded Germany behind the veteran’s 24 saves. Only an opening loss to Slovakia doomed the U.S. to be an underdog in the Q-finals.

My pre-tournament predictions involved the United States and Russia meeting for the gold medal in 2019. It looks like the soiree will happen sooner than anticipated.

Ice Hockey World Championships: The Quarterfinal Pairings

I can’t show you a “bracket” for the medal round that begins on Thursday morning and ends with the gold medal game on Sunday afternoon. That’s because the IIHF World Championship “re-seeds” its winners after the quarterfinals.

So, for instance, if 4th-seeded Switzerland scores an upset win on Thursday, they’ll be seeded against the top-seeded winner in the semifinals. Should the 1st seeds each win and advance, they’ll play the winners of the 2nd vs 3rd-seed Q-finals when play begins again on Saturday.

I also hesitate to give exact times since we have readers from all over the world (obviously) in a sports genre like the Worlds. But I can tell you that the early (“morning”) Q-finals begin just after 10 AM New York time on Thursday and the late “afternoon” Q-finals (nighttime in Slovakia) begin just after 2 PM if you’re watching from the Big Apple.

What we have right now are the quarterfinal pairings and 4 sets of odds…actually 5 sets of odds if you count the latest futures lines. Here’s each quarterfinal “fixture” (in honor of Great Britain’s marvelous bid to stay afloat in the top 16) and moneyline from Bovada Sportsbook:

Thursday Morning: Team USA (+270) vs Team Russia (-375)

Scroll to the next section for a complete preview.

Thursday Morning: Team Canada (-400) vs Team Switzerland (+285)

The Swiss upset the Canadians in last year’s semifinals thanks to weak goaltending on the Maple Leaf side. That won’t be a problem this year as Matt Murray of the Pittsburgh Penguins is manning the pipes. Murray was excellent in Canada’s 3-0 shut-out of the Americans that concluded the Group A schedule on Monday. Mark Stone and Anthony Mantha are making sure enough pucks fill the net.

Pundits like to count the NHL names on mixed NA + Euro rosters on their fingers and toes. When you hear, “Switzerland just doesn’t look as strong this year, Bob” on NHL Network, that means the analyst spent 2 minutes looking over a Swiss roster and found less of Nico Hischier’s state-side companions skating alongside the New Jersey Devil than were expected to be in Slovakia.

Don’t buy into that – Switzerland’s “National League” players can skate, pass, and shoot with North American pros on a big rink or they wouldn’t give all-NHL rosters hell every time.

That fact, however, doesn’t mean the Swiss are a sure-thing bet on Thursday.

Though the Canadians are skating with only a handful of players among their actual best 20 or 30 cogs from the NHL, Matt Murray is among the top 10 goalies in the world, and he’ll try to make the difference against the Eisgenossen.

Thursday Afternoon: Team Finland (+230) vs Team Sweden (-315)

The Finnish team has truly surprised me at the Worlds this year. As I’ve tried to explain on various blogs, it’s not that a lack of NHL names on the roster are an auto-mark down for a squad with as many good domestic and Russian league players to choose from. But the fact that a Jari Kurri-less management team has been unable to persuade all of the best athletes from those leagues to play has been troubling. It’s not the KHL All-Stars. Team Finland is comprised of overlooked journeymen.

But they’ve got a chip on their shoulder, and sometimes, that’s enough. Sweden has bolstered its size and scoring punch at forward with the recent additions of Gabriel Landeskog and Alexander Wennberg. John Klingberg and Oliver Ekman-Larsson are as good of an attacking 1-2 from the blue line as can ever be found on any level of ice hockey. Yet Sweden is the team that caved to the Russians in the 2nd period and nearly lost to Switzerland and Latvia in group play.

Thursday Afternoon: Team Czech Republic (-500) vs Team Germany (+375)

Leon Draisaitl of the Edmonton Oilers is the unabashed star of Team Germany. The sniper has pumped-in 5 goals and has more than a point per-game in the 2019 World Championship.

Philipp Grubauer of the Colorado Avalanche has also arrived to fortify the Germans in goal.

But the Czechs have potentially their best shot in a while to win a medal. Not only is the team’s Q-final draw immensely better than those suffered by the Yanks or Canucks, the squad has forwards on fire from the NHL and the European leagues alike. Dominik Kubalik of HC Ambri-Piotta is 9th at the Worlds in scoring through 7 games, and Filip Hronek of the Detroit Red Wings is making Motor City fans wish their club could meet National Hockey League foes on an Olympic ice surface.

Tip for Betting the Quarterfinals

Medvedev and Callahan Fight 2017

All 4 quarterfinal match-ups are emotional rivalry games. Pairings don’t get more “classic” than Finland vs Sweden or the United States vs Russia.

Meanwhile, the Canadians want revenge for losing to the Swiss last year, while Germany is the nation that knocked a heralded Czech team out of the World Cup in 2016 just 2 years prior to the former’s gold-medal triumph in Japan.

With tempers flaring on the ice, all 4 underdogs should have a little more value than Las Vegas is giving them.

Those interested in betting the ‘dogs on Thursday can find even-longer moneylines (with better payoffs) on the Americans, Finns, and Germans at MyBookie.

Take note – the Costa Rican sportsbook has never bothered to adjust its “World U20” category from the World Juniors in winter to the World Championships in spring, but the so-called “World U20” markets are actually World Championship lines.

Gold medal futures from Bovada Sportsbook as of 5/22 include Team Russia the favorite at (+135), Team Canada at (+300), and Team USA way back at (+950).

Why are gamblers so afraid of a U.S. team with 11 1st-round NHL draft picks on the roster?

Previewing Team USA vs Team Russia in Thursday’s Q-Final

The Americans appear to have been de-valued at NHL betting sites following the 3-0 loss to Canada on Tuesday – and following the unlucky quarterfinal draw. I’m skeptical of counting the Yanks out of both counts. Ryan Suter and Alec Martinez are world-class leaders of the defense corps, and Alec DeBrincat of the Chicago Blackhawks is having a tremendous tourney with 6 goals in 7 games.

I have been concerned about North American teams’ propensity to send All-Star NHL rosters and lackluster goaltending to the Worlds. If you’re going to send your best-available players anyway, why not take a kick at the can instead of letting a few injury-paranoid GMs spoil the show? Canada solved the problem this year by getting Murray on board. Schneider, while disappointed in an NHL season in which he was demoted to the minor leagues, is also looking solid in Slovakia with a 92+ % save mark.

But there are 2 good reasons to consider not taking the Yanks among your underdog medal-round bets at the Worlds this year.

The #1 reason is a Q-final opponent in red.

The Russian Bear Awakens

Contrary to the pessimistic screeds of Russian hockey fans who long for the days of Slava Fetisov on the blue line, I was actually confident in the Red Machine’s defense corps and goaltending coming into the ’19 Worlds. That confidence has been born-out. Meaningful goals-against were almost nonexistent throughout Russia’s tear through the group stage. When Norway scored a couple of garbage-time goals in the 3rd period, the Ruskies clamped down and shut out Austria, the Czechs, Italy, and (almost) Latvia, giving up 1 goal in a 4-game span.

At the same time, the lack of dominant offense was only a mystery. Alex Ovechkin is often criticized as being a lousy player on big ice (as Patrick Roy once put it, it’s hard to hear the haters with championship bling coming out of your ears), but he’s not the only NHL superstar who wasn’t producing for Russia through 6 games.

If it wasn’t for Malkin, Nikita Gusev, and Evengii Dadonov, the 6-0-0 record might not have come with so little 3rd-period drama.

Enter Tuesday’s tilt with Sweden. The Swedes have plenty of credentials as 2-time defending champs with a recently souped-up roster, while the Russians couldn’t even get late-round eliminated NHL players to come to Slovakia and help. If Latvia had buried just 2 more chances, they’d have earned a point from Russia in Group B. Perhaps Sweden could turn the trick.

Tre-Kronor even took a 1-goal lead against the Red Machine, just to take live-betting Worlds enthusiasts nice and giddy.

Then came the 2nd period.

Any questions?

Late Round-Robin Injury Hurts U.S. Chances

Team USA assistant captain Dylan Larkin went down with a groin injury in the match with Team Canada, casting further doubt on the Yanks’ ability to defend the Russians for 3 periods.

It’s not about losing the scoring punch. A myth about the Worlds is that the U.S. and Canadian teams are populated by “B-flight” NHLers simply because USA Hockey can’t pick up a phone and recruit the top 20 point-scorers from America or Canada in a given year. Canada typically brings 9-12 players who are 20-goal-scorer types in the NHL, a glut of sniping that almost no professional team enjoys. Team USA has been lacking in scoring depth in the past, but not this year, with Jack Eichel of the Buffalo Sabres just one of many play-makers on the top 3 forward lines.

But what troubles me is the fact that USAH does not recruit for depth, but rather a thin All-Star cast around which it can develop young prospects like Jack Hughes. It’s fine to have teenage phenoms scoring goals against Denmark in the Group stage, but what do you do when there’s a key injury?

Team USA’s game plan has to be one of intense skating and back-checking. The Americans can’t out-play the Russians, but they can out-work and out-body check them. Problem is that an already-thin roster of locker-room and on-ice leaders is getting even thinner at a bad, bad time.

IIHF Medal Round: Predictions and Best Bets

The media blitz around a USA-Russia showdown would be greater if the teams were meeting in a late-night weekend contest to decide the gold medal. As it stands, don’t count Team USA out just because they had a lousy Group showing.

America has always been a country that shows up to Men’s Olympic Games or World Championship tournaments and excels in the early-going, then peters-out when things get tough later. Perhaps it’s not a bad thing that Team USA lost a few Group A games in Slovakia. They need to play like an underdog. The Miracle on Ice was preceded by the worst exhibition-game showings you can imagine.

However, I’m not feeling another “Miracle” this time – except that I think Ovie might “magically” get a little bit more reliable on big ice (he usually does) when medals are on the line.

Look to the Germans – a team due for a “breakout” as per the Swiss last season – and the Finns as better ‘dog moneyline picks in the quarterfinals.

In a likely Russia vs Canada semifinal, look for the Under (5 ½) or (6 ½) goals. The Canadians will have no choice but to circle the wagons around Murray and hope to forecheck their way to a win.

Meanwhile, stick with Russia to win gold even at (+135) futures.

MY PICK:
Take Team Germany or Team Finland for the Q-finals at MyBookie.