The quarterfinal round of the 2019 World Junior Championships in Vancouver and Victoria, British Columbia, is underway today and the first two results have both been stunning surprises. Sweden, the Group B winner, fell to Switzerland 2-0 earlier, while Canada, the host team and tournament favorite, lost to Finland 2-1 in overtime after giving up the lead in the final minute of regulation. The United States and Russia remain alive for now, ahead of their semifinal match-up on Friday, but two of the top teams and many of the best NHL prospects are now out far earlier than expected.
For Canada, the defending WJC champs, this loss is historic. It marks the first time that Canada has failed to medal in a World Junior on home soil. The Canadians, the leading team in goal differential following a definitive 14-0 win over Denmark to open the tournament, were heralded for their depth and talent this year. Anaheim Ducks prospect Max Comtois, who played in ten games with the team to begin the season, led a skilled group that also counted first-rounders Morgan Frost (PHI), Cody Glass (VGK), and Owen Tippett (FLA) among its top scorers. However, the group recorded only 25 shots against Finland’s Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen (BUF) in the loss and will depart the tournament with little to show for their efforts.
Meanwhile, Sweden continues to have terrible luck in the elimination stages of the World Juniors. The Swedes have not lost in group stage at the WJC since 2008, a whopping 48 wins in a row, but have just one gold medal and an overall losing record in the subsequent rounds in that time. This year, behind an incredible early effort from Emil Bemstrom (CLB) and Erik Brannstrom (VGK), the team finally looked primed for a deep run. Instead, undrafted Luca Hollenstein got the shutout for the Swiss as Sweden failed to produce many high danger chances.
With either Finland or Switzerland, whoever wins their resulting match-up, now guaranteed a spot in the gold medal game, this World Junior has already been turned on its head. Can the U.S., who won’t have to face Canada at all in the WJC for the first time since 2005, and Russia, the points leader through group play, avoid similar surprising fates? Or will one of those teams capitalize on the early upsets to seize the World Junior title this year?