With all four Flames prospects at the World Juniors advancing to the semifinals on Saturday, they were back in action last night looking to book their spot in the gold medal game. Jakob Pelletier, Connor Zary, and Canada took on Yan Kuznetsov and Russia in a rematch of last year’s final, while Dustin Wolf and the USA took on Finland in the second semifinal matchup.
In the early game, Canada handled Russia with ease by a score of 5-0, continuing their dominant run in the tournament. Through six games, the Canadians have trailed for a total of zero minutes and have outscored their opponents 32-0 at even strength. In the second semifinal, team USA beat team Finland 4-3 in a much closer game. Wolf was once again backing up Spencer Knight and didn’t see any action.
Jakob Pelletier and Connor Zary
After another impressive showing on Saturday in the quarterfinals, Pelletier got a promotion to the top line alongside Dylan Cozens and Connor McMichael. A promotion to the top line for the semifinals is very impressive for a player who was on the bubble to even make the team back in November and shows just how great Pelletier has been for Canada.
Pelletier showed his coaches they made the right decision promoting him as he continued his strong play last night. He picked up where he left off on Saturday and was doing some great work down low in the offensive zone winning puck battle after puck battle against much larger players. On Canada’s second goal of the game, Pelletier made a great pass and showed off his vision by finding Connor McMichael in front for an easy goal into an empty net.
As Gord Miller mentioned on the broadcast, Pelletier has been relentless all tournament. In a perfect example in the second period, Pelletier battled along the boards all the way from his own blue line to the Russian red line to ensure Canada got the puck deep. He just never gives up on a play.
Pelletier always seems to be in on the forecheck and pressuring the opposition defence and that couldn’t have been more evident in tonight’s game. On one play, Pelletier got in quick on the forecheck forcing Yaroslov Askarov to turn the puck over. Later during the shift, he stripped a Russian defenceman as he was exiting the zone. On an almost identical play later in the period, Pelletier again stripped the defenceman from behind as he was leaving the zone which led to a good scoring chance for Canada.
He also made a great play on the penalty kill saving a sure goal by poking the puck away at the last second from the Russian forward who had a wide open net. He later added to his point total with an assist on the empty netter by Cozens for his tournament leading eighth goal. He finished the game with two assists, one shot, and 16:08 of ice time which was fourth among Canadian forwards.
Zary once again started the game in the 13th forward spot despite his strong play in limited minutes at the tournament. As usual, his shifts continued to increase as the game went on. He was reunited with Quinton Byfield early and on their first shift their line had sustained pressure as well as a couple of chances. He was impressive in the offensive zone whenever he got a shot and ended up sticking on a line with Byfield for a good chunk of the game. He ended the game with one shot and 7:14 of ice time. Despite getting limited minutes for most of the tournament, Zary has taken full advantage of his ice time and has looked dangerous whenever he is in the offensive zone. We’ll see where he starts for the gold medal game but it wouldn’t be surprising at all to see him bumped up once again.
With the loss, Kuznetsov will now be going for a bronze medal tomorrow night against Finland. He will be eligible to play again next year, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him back on the team. Although he doesn’t grab the same attention as the other Flames prospects, Kuznetsov has had a very good tournament. Despite Russia getting handily outplayed for most of this game, Kuznetsov continued his steady play and didn’t look out of place at all against Canada’s high-powered offence.
He did have a bit of a shaky start as he let his man get sneak in behind him and ended up losing the battle in front on McMichael’s goal from Pelletier. He didn’t let this faze him though as he was great on defence from there on out, rarely making mistakes
In the second period he made a superb play to break up a Canadian chance which then led to a Russian chance at the other end. He also won a puck race in the third against the speedy Pelletier to deny him a chance alone on goal. Throughout the tournament, Kuznetsov showed that despite his size, he can move very well and keep up with almost anyone on the ice.
Overall, considering his age and the fact he was somewhat of a longshot to make the team, Kuznetsov had a very impressive tournament. He played well against some elite level talent throughout the tournament and showed that he belonged on the big stage. He is still just 18 years old and should have a great shot to play in next year’s tournament.
Pelletier and Zary will go head to head with team USA and Wolf for gold tomorrow night as Canada tries to be the first team to win back to back gold medals at the tournament since they won five straight from 2005 to 2009. This will be the fifth gold medal game between the two countries with the Americans having won the last three meetings. Regardless of the result tomorrow night, a Flames prospect is guaranteed to win gold, with a chance of all four to medal if Russia can take bronze.
Zary, Pelletier, and Wolf will then head down the highway to participate in the Flames’ training camp. Kuznetsov will head further south back to UConn for the rest of the NCAA season.
Photo Credits: Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images