This season’s World Championship was not supposed to make a media splash of any kind. NHL player recruiting is still a hard road for national teams following COVID-19, and the next potential Winter Olympics involving the NHL’s superstars won’t come until 2026. Yet with the NHL’s most popular brands having lost playoff series to post-1980s expansion teams (and the league’s new strongholds in swamp country), the 2023 IIHF Worlds have emerged with a thrilling narrative for watchers who still recall the glory days of East vs West international pond shinny.
Remember the supposed “Big Six” ice hockey teams which dominated the Olympic Games, whether or not NHL players were allowed to take part? If the 2023 Worlds are any indication, we might be calling it the “Big 11” or “Big 12” by winter of 2026. Team Switzerland’s rise to prominence is only a small part of the story.
The IIHF’s improving depth of competition can’t be denied when looking at either round-robin group’s final ledger. Denmark’s leading snipers threw a party on the power play, while host Latvia won 5 consecutive games to qualify for the medal round, rebounding late in the 3rd period to upset Switzerland on Tuesday. Team USA, not so incidentally, took advantage of a thinner Group A to secure a #1 medal-round seed of the Yanks’ own. Russia lurks as a powerhouse that could be reinstated by 2025.
The Q-Final bracket reveals a deeper field of contenders than just Big Six teams at the Worlds. Defending champion Finland had a dreadful start in Group Stage, while the Maple Leaf was surprised 3-2 by Norway early this week, forcing 2022’s finalists into a quarterfinal faceoff with rapid elimination on the line. Craig Ramsay’s young Slovakia roster, led by half of a dozen NHL rookies in 2023, fell victim to poor luck as Latvia’s miracle Group Stage finish knocked the upstarts out. We should still add Slovakia to the list of dangerous teams prepping for Italy in ’26.
Sweden is favored over Latvia in Thursday’s quarterfinal, though Latvia’s long-time loyal roster has battled better versions of Sweden in tight playoff games, including a memorably nervy elimination bout at the Worlds in 2018.
United States and Czechia should inspire comparable odds for Thursday’s first elimination round, given that both opponents’ NHL snipers are saddled with a dull supporting cast of career minor-league talents. Team Canada’s well-rounded squad can and should be a betting favorite to defeat Finland, unless the laboring Lions get their pride in order quickly. Finally, the “parlay-only” favorite’s odds on Switzerland to beat Germany and advance to the semifinals are another sign of the times. Germany has been a tough blue-collar opponent for teams like Russia, Finland, and Canada over the past 5 years. But without Leon Draisaitl or an NHL goaltender, the Germans are probably not a solid underdog pick to hang with the 2023 tournament’s finest team in the upcoming round.
Moneylines, if not Over/Under odds, were hot off the presses at FanDuel Sportsbook less than 3 hours after the 2023 Group Stage was complete, while Bovada Sportsbook has its usual spread of tentative, advance game-odds available while also subject to rapid change and temporary removal. Let’s see what the opening Q-Final odds have to offer.
IIHF Worlds Quarterfinal Games: Opening Odds and Predictions
United States vs Czechia (9:20 AM EST)
Thursday’s early games are a study in unanticipated contrasts, for while Switzerland’s story just isn’t the same as Germany’s anymore, Team USA and Czechia are going through much the same annoyance at 2023’s Worlds.
The bookends of both teams are superb. United States netminder Casey DeSmith is debatably better than any goaltender Hockey Canada recruited to this year’s World Championship, and 2 of the team’s contingent of American Hockey League skaters has spent the 2023 Worlds round-robin rubbing WagerBop‘s nose in a very unwise forecast. Our blog picked out T.J. Tynan and Rocco Grimaldi of the AHL as terrible options for a Stars & Stripes power play, but each playmaker has out-shined his NHL contemporaries at the Worlds, as the pair has combined for a phenomenal 19 points in 42 combined periods. Meanwhile, the Czechs boast 2 of the tournament’s absolute best non-NHL players in forward Roman Cervenka and defenseman Michal Kempný, bolstering a lineup that’s also suffered a rash of key declines from American stars of the pond. Czechia’s getting ace netminding from Karel Vejmelka of the Arizona Coyotes, a small ray of light for an NHL brand that’s beset by poor attendance.
But the output of each squad has diminished as the 2023 Worlds have progressed, making us wonder why the USA (-170) would be cast as a solid favorite at FanDuel if it were not for “sentimental” picks tilting the odds on a tight encounter, a game that could go to a 1-1 or 2-2 overtime deadlock just as easily as the Stanley Cup semifinals. Red, White, and Blue snipers noticeably slowed down against Austria and Denmark respectively in Rounds 4 and 5 of group competition. The USA’s 9-0 trouncing of France and 4-3 triumph over Sweden since then must be seen in context of France’s quick elimination from Q-Final berth contention, and Sweden’s pitifully thin roster in 2023. Czechia was guilty of an even duller 2-0 win over Norway before losing 2x in a row coming into the Q-Finals.
Speculators should think about picking “Under” on any USA-Czechia goal total market at (5.5) goals or higher, if they can find one. But the strongest pick is Czechia at plus odds. From time immemorial, the Czechia game is the kind of quarterfinal matchup that Team USA loses … as the betting favorite in America, and a wise underdog in Europe.
WagerBop’s Pick: Czechia (+140)
Switzerland vs Germany (9:20 AM EST)
When the IIHF Worlds were held in Switzerland circa a decade ago, the IIHF’s diplomatic copy writers hyped an opening round faceoff between Germany and Switzerland by posting, “Watch 2 fierce ice hockey rivals meet in what is bound to be a great game.” That was a polite way of saying that the teams were warring with each other to get into the IIHF World Ranking’s top 10, instead of the dregs of the 11-20 rankings where Olympic qualification is never certain. It was also likely that Switzerland-Germany would make a “great” game to watch, only because each country’s meager offense meant that scoring would be tough, at that fans needn’t worry about a blow-out.
How times have changed! The Swiss are FanDuel Sportsbook’s 3-to-1 gold medal favorites at the 2023 IIHF Worlds, having raced out to a tremendous goals-for and goals-against margin in this year’s round robin, earning a #1 playoff seed behind a team led by Nico Hischier of the New Jersey Devils. Remember that Team Switzerland was not only not considered part of the “Big Six” in Brett Hull’s era of Team USA, but the Swiss weren’t even considered the next candidate to transform into a Big Six nation. Enthusiasts looking for Men’s World Championship and Olympic underdogs placed their bets and Daily Fantasy picks on Slovakia, or carped about the “economic potential” of hockey leagues in Germany, France, and England. Switzerland has risen so slowly and steadily through the ranks that it was easy to forget about the Eisgenossen. They could be hard to forget after this year, given an easy quarterfinal draw against Team Germany, and arguably the finest collection of NHL talent at the tournament.
Germany can’t hope to cope without Leon Draisaitl’s participation, or anything but a DEL-trained goalie.
WagerBop’s Pick: Switzerland (-355) (With Parlay)
Canada vs Finland (1:20 PM EST)
It’s a surprise to see opening odds of (-130) on Finland to defeat Canada (+110), considering that the Lions have had the most disappointing 7 games of any gold medal contender in Riga or Tampere. Beginning with a lopsided loss to a typically under-rehearsed Team USA, the Finns have not at all looked like the squad that swept the Winter Olympics and World Championship last cycle. Defense and checking-oriented teams can hit a wall of failure and frustration just as easily and unexpectedly as fast-skating teams of snipers. Finland has relied on precise neutral-zone play alongside a 20+ man disciplined effort to win its games. When the Lions are only as disciplined and tactically effective as the next European team at the Worlds, there’s no backload of epic scoring to fall back on.
Meanwhile, the Maple Leaf is still sporting a well-balanced, deep roster that’s getting a career performance from defenseman McKenzie Weegar, and better than its anticipated level of goaltending from Samuel Montembeault of the Montreal Canadiens. We’ll pick the international “Habs” as the true favorite in a truly fierce 2020s rivalry.
WagerBop’s Pick: Canada (+110)
Sweden vs Latvia (1:20 PM EST)
Sarauj! Latvia’s massive upset of Switzerland in the final round of Group Stage did more than just extend a winning streak for the hosts, or put Latvia into a quarterfinal bid against Sweden on Thursday. It also erased a bugaboo for a program that often does everything right, except putting pucks in the twine. Latvia’s squad of European professionals has often drawn terrible “must-win” matchups at the Worlds, and Tuesday’s meeting with then unbeaten Switzerland was no exception. But when the Riga hosts fell behind 3-2 with 6 minutes left, fans barely had any time to contemplate what might have been another Round 7 nightmare. Latvia scored quickly to tie the game, then again in overtime to secure an unreal #3 seed and spark waterworks of joy inside and outside the arena.
— Eerik Marmei (@EerikMarmei) May 23, 2023
Last but not least, Latvia’s draw against Sweden is an opportunity for speculators … at least if the betting odds remain exaggerated in Sweden’s favor. Tre Kronor is handicapped as a (-420) moneyline favorite that’s as shaky as any of the picks found at the World Championship this year.
Given the numerical odds, we won’t dive into any cliche humor about bookmakers indulging in too many of Nevada’s legalized products. Still, someone in charge might not be paying attention to what’s going on overseas. Latvia’s checking smothered Sweden in the medal round in 2018, with the Swedes eking out a 3-2 victory in spite of successfully recruiting over a dozen more NHL names to participate than for the poor Sweden lineup of ’23. When a nation has 100+ NHL skaters and less than 10 show up to play at the Worlds, the C-list and D-list roster choices supporting top-6 skaters like Alex Nylander can become prohibitive of winning an IIHF medal.
Sweden’s goaltending, to make matters worse, looks shakier than when Tommy Salo was letting in howlers at the 2002 Olympics. That could help to reduce Latvia’s sniping disadvantage in a game that could actually see the 3-to-1 underdog carry the play for 5:00 at a time. After winning 5 in a row, the co-hosts are confident enough to do it.
WagerBop’s Pick: Latvia (+310)
Kurt has authored close to 1000 stories covering football, soccer, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, prize-fighting and the Olympic Games. Kurt posted a 61% win rate on 200+ college and NFL gridiron picks last season. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.