What to know for the world juniors’ playoff rounds

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This year’s world junior hockey championship has been a strange one, to say the least. Originally set in its traditional Christmas time slot, the tournament was scrapped after just a few games due to a slew of COVID-19 cases at the height of the Omicron variant’s wrath. Organizers later decided to give it another shot Aug. 9-20 in Edmonton (Red Deer was dropped as co-host), and to kick out perennial contender Russia as punishment for its invasion of Ukraine.

Junior hockey in the dog days of summer was always going to be a tough sell, and it got tougher when Hockey Canada’s callous handling of sexual assault allegations became public a few weeks ago. As a result, fan support of the tournament has been tepid, at best. Only 5,200 people attended Canada’s round-robin finale vs. Finland last night at 18,500-seat Rogers Place, while just 350 took in Switzerland vs. Austria. And with corporate sponsors having “paused” their relationships with Hockey Canada in the wake of the sexual assault scandal, the action on the ice is taking place against a backdrop of ad-free boards. Pretty much everything about this tournament has felt a little off since the first puck dropped.

There might, though, be an uptick in interest now that a typically lacklustre group stage is over and the knockout rounds are set to begin Wednesday. Here’s what to know:

Canada is still the favourite to win gold. The original roster back in December had the makings of a juggernaut, with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NHL draft (Owen Power) anchoring the defence and the presumptive top choice in this year’s draft (Shane Wright) headlining the forwards. Canada lost them both after Power joined the Buffalo Sabres and Wright slid to the Seattle Kraken with the fourth pick. But they’ve hardly been missed, as Canada mowed through Group A with a perfect 4-0 record while outsourcing its opponents by 20 goals.

Mason McTavish has stepped right into a starring role. The Canadian captain, who went two spots behind Power in the 2021 draft, to Anaheim, is dominating the scoring race. Through four games, McTavish has piled up 13 points (four more than anyone else in the tournament) and seven goals (three up on the field). That includes a goal and a pair of assists in last night’s important 6-3 win over Finland that secured first place in Group A for Canada.

The Next Connor has arrived. While McTavish’s numbers are eye-popping, most fans’ gazes have been locked on his phenomenal teammate Connor Bedard. Back in December, when he was still only 16, Bedard became the youngest player in world juniors history to score four goals in a game. That record got erased after the original tournament was ditched, but the now 17-year-old forward has picked up right where he left off, notching seven points in four games to rank second on the Canadian team, and fourth in the tournament, in scoring. Bedard, who plays for Regina of the WHL, is a virtual lock to go No. 1 in next year’s NHL draft and is widely considered the best prospect since his namesake Connor McDavid entered the league in 2015. Last night, Bedard once again flashed his laser-like shot on this goal, assisted by McTavish:

WATCH | McTavish sets up Bedard vs. Finland:

Bedard and McTavish stay hot in Canada’s win over Finland

Mason McTavish set up Connor Bedard for a first period goal in Canada’s 6-3 round robin win over Finland at the world juniors.

Canada and the United States appear headed for a gold-medal rematch. Last time the tournament was held, in a bubble setup (remember those?) in Edmonton, the Americans prevailed 2-0 on this very same ice surface. A year and a half later, the cross-border rivals are the only two unbeaten teams heading into the quarter-finals. The U.S. was just about as dominant as Canada in the preliminary round, outsourcing its four foes by a combined 18 goals to take Group B. Forwards Matt Coronato (a Calgary Flames draft pick) and Carter Mazur (Detroit) led the way with four goals apiece. As the top two seeds entering the playoffs, the Canadians and Americans are on track to meet in the title game again. Both will face the fourth-place team in the opposite group in Wednesday’s cross-over quarter-finals. The semifinals are on Friday, and the championship game goes Saturday night.

The quarter-final matchups:

  • Finland (2nd in Group A) vs. Germany (3rd in Group B) at noon ET.
  • Sweden (2nd in Group B) vs. Latvia (3rd in Group A) at 3:30 p.m. ET.
  • Canada (1st in Group A) vs. Switzerland (4th in Group B) at 7 p.m. ET.
  • United States (1st in Group B) vs. Czech Republic (4th in Group A) at 10:30 p.m. ET.

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