All four Flames prospects advanced to the semi finals of the World Juniors. Yan Kuznetsov and the Russians took on Team Germany, winning by a surprisingly narrow margin of 2-1. For Team Canada, Connor Zary and Jakob Pelletier helped eliminate the Czech Republic 3-0. Team USA also advanced over Slovakia, but Dustin Wolf did not feature in the victory. In all three games, the favoured teams won, but definitely didn’t play their best hockey.
In Russia and Germany’s surprisingly close quarter-final matchup, Yan Kuznetsov performed well, excelling in the shutdown role he is expected to play. While he won’t make many highlight reels for his play, that’s not a bad thing. His game focusses on defense first, and he was very solid in his own end. His blend of size and strength with surprising quickness allowed him to keep opponents to the outside once they were in the Russian’s end.
This was especially apparent on the penalty kill. Kuznetsov and the Russians played an aggressive penalty, especially on the left side of the ice, taking away as much time and space as possible from Germany’s top players. In one especially impressive shift, he angled Tim Stutzle to the end boards, and before Stutzle could get set up he was all over him, forcing a turnover.
His play defending one-on-ones and odd man rushes was also strong. His reach and quick feet allowed him to keep Germany’s zone entries to the outside when they did get into the zone. Late in the game he did show a slight lack of calmness, throwing himself into a sliding pass block with only a few minutes left. While he did block the initial pass his slide carried him right out of the play, allowing the Germans to recover and get a shot on net from in tight. Presumably he didn’t see his two teammates also backchecking to cover the pass for him, leading to his misreading the situation and diving to block the pass. Luckily it did not end up being a consequential play.
All told, he put in a strong defensive effort in just under 15 minutes of ice time as the Russians snuck past the Germans to reach the semi finals.
Zary started the game centering a line with Cole Perfetti and Peyton Krebs, a big opportunity for him as he has spent most of the tournament in the bottom of the roster, including time spent as the 13th forward. For the most part, his performance was unremarkable but not bad. With the team looking underwhelming despite their two goal lead heading into the third period, coach Andre Tourigny switched up the lines, and Zary found himself on the left wing with Pelletier and Dylan Holloway.
Despite the line juggling, Zary played a decent game. As a centreman on his original line, he was excellent in his own end, supporting the defense by playing low in his own end and helping out in battles down low, often retrieving pucks and starting the breakout on his own. He managed to translate this into strong zone exits, but not into much in the way of offense. Rather than wait and hope for an offensive spark in a game in which Team Canada was clearly underperforming, coach Tourigny switched him to the wing for the start of the third period.
After the switch, he played substantially less, only 3:21 in the third period, out of a total of 13:15 played. Considering his strong individual play, it is most likely Tourigny simply wanted to find a spark in his lineup rather than specifically demote or promote any one player.
Pelletier continued to impress yesterday. Just like in each of Canada’s previous games, Pelletier was excellent not only for the energy he brought to every shift, but also for his defensive prowess. Up by two late in the game, the Canadians were on the defensive with the Czech goalie pulled for the extra attacker. Pelletier spent much of the last five minutes staying in passing lines and disrupting the Czech’s push to get back in the game. His play without the puck, especially in his own end, continued to be impressive.
The trust the coaching staff puts in his defensive abilities is clear also from his ice time numbers. In each period, he played more than in the one before. With the team struggling to get going and needing to hang on for the win, Pelletier was relied on to keep things under control.
In the offensive zone, Pelletier was also steady. While not one of Canada’s most explosive offensive weapons, he continues to find loose pucks and force turnovers in the offensive zone, allowing his line to sustain pressure in the offensive end. He didn’t come away with any points in this one, but his ability to keep plays alive makes him a valuable member of any line in the attacking end.
The semi-finals will begin on Monday, with Zary, Pelletier, and Canada facing off against Kuznetsov and Team Russia. It should be a ton of fun to watch these Flames prospects face off against each other before one of the two teams is sent to the gold medal game. With Dustin Wolf unlikely to play for Team USA in the playoffs as he is the backup to Spencer Knight, Canada’s semi-final will definitely be the matchup to watch for Flames fans.
Photo Credit: Jason Franson/CP