World Juniors 2021: Predictions, odds, X-factors, breakdowns for semifinal matchups

Buckle up kids, the 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship is about to be pure fire.

Monday brings the semifinals and the cream of the crop has risen to the top with four of the “Big Five” powerhouses set to battle it out for a spot in the gold-medal game. Both semis are also rematches of 2020 medal-round meetings and two sides will surely be looking for some revenge. 

Canada nabbed the top spot in Group A and the 2021 tournament while the United States won Group B and will face off against Russia and Finland, respectively. Dare we say, this puts the two North American squads on a collision course. But before we get there, let’s delve into the semifinals.

World Juniors 2021: Semifinals predictions

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Canada vs. Russia

How they got here

Canada steamrolled the competition in going a perfect 4-0 in the preliminary round, outscoring opponents 33-4, before blanking the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals. Russia dispatched the United States in their lid-lifter and then was shocked, and shut out, by that same Czech squad. The team rebounded to win the next three including a tough quarterfinal meeting with upstart Germany. These two teams also met in their lone exhibition game, but the headline of that contest was the loss of captain Kirby Dach to a wrist injury.

2020 history

A long-storied rivalry, these two combatants battled it out for gold last year with the Canadians showcasing grit, determination and unwavering confidence in their squad. Trailing 3-1 in the third period, they stormed back by tallying three unanswered goals — including a breathtaking backhander by Akil Thomas as he was falling down with 3:58 remaining in the game — to seal the 4-3 win. Before Canada won gold, these two countries met in 2020’s preliminary round where Russia handed Canada the worst loss in its world junior history.

CANADA vs. RUSSIA 2020: Preliminary round | Gold-medal game

Six players return from 2020’s gold-medal winning team (Quinton Byfield, Bowen Byram, Dylan Cozens, Jamie Drysdale, Connor McMichael and Dawson Mercer) while Russia sees three from its silver-medal squad (Yaroslav Askarov, Vasily Podkolzin and Maxim Groshev). The head coaches also return as “The Professor” Igor Larionov was elevated from an assistant last year as was Canada’s bench boss Andre Tourigny who doesn’t think they’ll be much emotional carryover despite the number of returnees.

“I think it’s enough there, we don’t have to add anything,” noted Tourigny. “The history between Canada and Russia, it’s well documented and everybody knows how big of a game that will be and there’s nothing bigger than that at this point. … I think it’s will be a great game.”

Some stats to know

X-factor: Devon Levi

Just like the quarterfinals, Levi will be critical to Canada’s success in this one. The goalie has started every game (he was pulled against Germany to get Dylan Garand some time) and has allowed just three goals — all on the power play. Before the quarterfinals, he had only faced 61 shots; against the Czechs, he once again showcased strong positioning and a calm and steady presence despite facing an onslaught — 29 shots   — which was something he enjoyed.

“It was super fun to be busy in the first period. It really keeps you in the game,” said Levi, who faced 12 shots in the frame before getting his second shutout of the tourney. “It’s a different type of game, right? So, the past games it was bit harder to stay focused. I found in this game it was easy to have fun and just go out and play, for sure.”

The big number: 0

In the last two games, the Canadians have put up goose-eggs on the power play, going 0-for-6 (0-for-1 against the Czechs). Since the start of the tournament on Boxing Day, they’ve punched in only five goals in 16 chances with the goals came against the weaker opponents in its group — two against Germany and three against Austria. Russia has been good, really good, on the penalty kill going 16-for-17, so it’ll be a tall task ahead but could be critical to advancing to the gold medal game.

SN’s pick: Canada, 4-3

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United States vs. Finland

How they got here

The Americans lost their tournament opener to Russia, put it behind them and then went out and topped Group B with three straight wins. They had a little bit of a scare in the quarterfinals against a tough Slovakian team but pushed through with a much-closer-than-the-score 5-2 win. As for Finland, they won a few tight ones before losing in the preliminary round capper to Canada. In the quarterfinals, it was the “Battle of Scandinavia” where the Finns clawed back from a 2-0 hole to avenge their bronze-medal loss in 2020 to Sweden; Maple Leafs prospect Roni Hirvonen scored with just 23.3 seconds left in regulation to seal the win.

Like the other semifinal, these two teams met in an exhibition game that saw the Americans win 3-2.

2020 history

This one could really be labeled 2019 and 2020 history. Two years ago the Finns beat the U.S. in the gold-medal game when now-Ranger Kaapo Kakko netted the go-ahead goal with 1:26 on the clock. Last year, Finland blanked the Americans in the quarterfinals dashing the Americans’ hopes at a fifth straight year with a medal.

Eight players return from last year’s squad for the U.S. (Bobby Brink, Cole Caufield, Arthur Kaliyev, Spencer Knight, Alex Turcotte, Dustin Wolf, Cam York and Trevor Zegras) while Knight was one of three goals in 2019. For Finland, there are five guys returning from 2020 (Santeri Hatakka, Ville Heinola, Mikko Kokkonen, Kari Piiroinen and Aku Raty); Heinola and Anton Lundell, who missed last year with an injury, also won gold two years ago.

USA vs. FINLAND: 2019 | 2020

Some stats to know

X-factor: Bobby Brink

The Flyers prospect has been a thorn in goaltenders’ sides in 2021. He’s potted two goals — both on the doorstep — and has four helpers. Teaming up with John Farinacci and Brett Berard, the line has been dominant in games, especially on the forecheck which led to Farinacci’s insurance goal in the quarterfinals. Alongside the top-six, having a third line that can create chances gives head coach Nate Leaman flexibility with the lineup.

The big number: 21

Of the four teams remaining, Finland has been the most undisciplined with 19 power plays for the opposition. Considering the U.S. has the best power-play percentage in the tournament with eight goals, this bodes well for the Americans. Special teams could be critical in this one and it should be noted the Americans have also only allowed one goal when shorthanded.

SN’s pick: United States, 4-2

World Juniors 2021 odds to win gold medal

Betting odds courtesy of  DraftKings  as of Jan. 1.

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