I try not to publish WagerBop predictions less than 24 hours from kickoff (or puck-drop) due to the blog-traffic factor. Even the site’s most-popular pages aren’t clicked-on by a million people at once. (There aren’t that many sports-gambling aficionados in the world, but at least they hail from all over.) That’s why we make a big deal out of weekly league schedules and events with weeks between legs – at least the sportsbook odds and the dates create a window in which to feature games and cultivate interest in our wacky, unorthodox touts.
Why is the IIHF worth an exception? Well, if you don’t make a shotgun-prediction on an IIHF medal round, you’ll never get to make any at all. Like most IIHF tournaments, the World Junior Championship allows for 1 precious day off following the quarterfinals, after which the stamina of the 4 surviving medal-hopefuls is tested along with the speed, skill, defense, shooting, checking, and mental fortitude of national U20 squads. Medal winners will have played up to 8 periods in 24 hours and managed to prevail at least once.
There’s barely enough time for bookmakers to realize IIHF Semifinal odds with 24 hours to spare. We’re supposed to advise “fading the public,” but as of of Sunday night, most “line-movement” on the WJC Semifinals consists of people waiting-in-line to wager once their sportsbook gets around to it. (“Division 1” Q-tournaments are rapid round-robins with zip, zero, and zilch windows to squeeze a prediction in and have it read by 30+ people, giving UK bloggers another reason to celebrate Britain’s surprise arrival in the World Championship’s elite field of 16.)
But there are still valuable lines, starting with odds on Monday’s twilight face-off between 2 ancient rivals in pond shinny. Neither the Puck Line or moneyline for Semifinal #1 between Russia and Canada, or the O/U total for USA vs Sweden in Semifinal #2, match the line-forecast WagerBop was able to make in the long hours between Quarterfinal results and opening action on the semis. Here’s a closer look at how WJC odds-makers could be going wrong this week.
2021 WJC Semifinals: The Canada vs Russia Odds Ignore History (Again)
Canada (-310), Russia (+250) feels like a home-brewed moneyline.
While it’s true that some United Kingdom betting sites aren’t pricing the Russians any more kindly, other offshore sportsbooks have the Junior Red Machine at thinner than 2-to-1, a more-logical handicap of a virtual toss-up of a hockey game, which Canada vs Russia almost always is, by all historical trends and standards.
Russia’s national teams have racked-up .750 records against Canada in the Olympic Games, senior Worlds, and a few other series. NHL junkies have some legit and some illegitimate excuses to make for those numbers, but if a U20 match-up of NHL Draft picks and young European stars is the “fairest” battle on the international stage, then the history of the World Junior Championship has shown that Canada and Russia, like Godzilla and Mothra, remain virtual equals on the pond.
Canada leads the all-time WJC series 20-19-2. While the Habs are 5-3 against the Junior Reds since 2012, last January’s gold-medal-game comeback heroics could cloud the fact that Russia destroyed the Maple Leaf 6-0 in a Group Stage contest.
It’s true that Canada looks to have the more-explosive attack this time. Several Team Canada U20 skaters dot the list of the top-dozen scorers of the 2020-21 Group Stage, and sniper Dylan Cozens leads the tournament with 7 goals. By contrast, the Russians haven’t placed anyone among the top 12 scorers, and appear to have an Achilles Heel not unlike the 2019 Men’s World Championship team. Russia sent a “PlayStation” roster to the recent Worlds, but lost to 20 European professionals skating for Team Finland. Czech Republic U20 shut-out Russia 2-0 on NHL Network just a few days ago, using similar methods – a “left-wing lock” defensive trap in the neutral zone.
Russia’s tack back to its ice-hockey roots from a tactical POV, underscored by Igor Larionov standing behind the bench, does seem to have opened-up a vulnerability against the staid defending teams of Europe. Like the “Russian Five” of the Detroit Red Wings, the U20 Russians want opponents to chase the puck, leaving play-makers like #15 overall pick Rodion Amirov to find space and counter-attack. Standing your ground in the neutral zone leads to a lot of complaints from TV announcers, but it’s helped Finland and the Czech Republic upset the Russians under bright lights. It’s also helped Team Germany nearly upset Russia twice – once in the gold medal game of the 2018 Winter Olympics, and once in Saturday’s WJC quarterfinal round in Edmonton.
But the Canadians won’t play Russia that way – in fact if there’s an easily-defined weakness of Team Canada and Team USA at the Worlds and the WJC, it’s a lack of singleness-of-purpose and a corresponding inability to adapt in different situations. Russia wants to win gold and would be happy playing a boring neutral-zone trap in the 3rd period to prevent a repeat of last year’s blown lead. Canada wants to win gold while showcasing 20 draft picks playing hell-for-leather, All-Maple Leaf style hockey. It’s worked against Team Russia just over 50% of the time at the World Juniors. But it’s not a 1-to-3 scenario, and there’s no Plan B to speak of. Russia has about a 50% chance to lose on Monday, but won’t trip over its Heel again, thanks to Canada’s counterattack-friendly style.
Last but not least, NHLN pundits often spend whole tourneys trashing whoever the Russian goalie is for his supposedly “bad” form. Translated out of “meathead,” that means KHL goalies have different skill-sets than NHL goalies do. Devon Levi has turned into a terrific find for the Florida Panthers, a 7th-round NHL Draft Pick who has stonewalled 2 teams at the World Juniors so far. But the Canucks had a slightly easier round-robin than GK Yaroslav Askarov and the U20 Russians did, considering Team USA and Team Austria were the only teams Russia really matched-up well against from an X & O’s standpoint. Team Germany had its worst outing by-far against Canada, and the 2 weak sisters in Group A – Slovakia and Switzerland – combined for 10 goals-scored. In contrast, the Czechs scored 10 goals, allowed 14, and finished 4th in Russia’s loaded Group B.
Always take the ‘dog when a game is a toss-up. Canada vs Russia is the eternal toss-up.
Pick: Russia (+250) or Russia (+1.5) (-115)
2021 World Juniors Semifinal: USA vs Finland Over/Under Prediction
Finland (+250) makes a great sentimental underdog, even against the United States. In fact, USA Hockey is tied to the reason why Suomi is such a cool rooting interest. Team Finland has appeared to reap karmic rewards ever since the Lady Lions were robbed of a gold medal on home ice at the Women’s World Championship in 2019.
Several weeks later, the Finns won an amazing David vs Goliath(s) medal round at the Men’s Worlds, despite a lack of NHL and KHL skaters outside of representatives of Helsinki’s club in the Russian league. NHL superstars couldn’t penetrate the Lions’ blue line, and NHL goalies underestimated the passing and shooting skills of Euro forwards at yet another fatal time to do so.
Finland U20 used the same determined, disciplined style to defeat rival Sweden in a spectacular Q-final comeback at the 2021 World Juniors.
However, it’s doubtful that Finland’s undermanned 2021 roster can knock-off the Yankees after such an emotional battle with Tre-Kronor. Team Canada got-off 35 SOG against Finland in the opening 40:00. Like Russia, the Stars & Stripes has also emerged from a tougher round-robin than its counterpart. Team USA forwards have been buoyed by improved man-on-man checking, and (thus) far more explosive with the puck in 4 straight victories. 19 y/o forward Trevor Zegras leads the World Juniors with 15 points and dazzled against Team Sweden.
That doesn’t mean Finland won’t play its game, and it doesn’t mean that the underdogs at the World Junior Championships hasn’t grown by leaps and bounds in only a few years. Meaningful game results like “Russia 2, Germany 1” or “Canada 3, Slovakia 1” are only supposed to happen at the senior Worlds, where veteran defensemen have grown used to dealing with rush-after-rush from standout NHL players. All of the blue lines at the World Juniors are playing more sophisticated hockey than they used to, and the medal-hungry Finns will take advantage of the lack of overwhelmed goalies, clogging-up the middle and not letting the Americans pile-up quality shots.
The valuable gambling option is the low-side of a “standard” (5.5) O/U at Bovada Sportsbook, which happens to match the other WJC Semifinal’s O/U total, but should logically be dropping lower for the late game.
Special-teams goals could be the only thing that helps lift the collective total to 6+ tallies, and the scrappy Finns do have a pair of skaters near the top of the World Juniors PIM list in forwards Samuel Helenius and Roni Hirvonen. However, in 1 of the most-noteworthy stats headed into Monday, the junior Yanks and Lions have combined to allow just 4 power-play goals on nearly 30 opposing chances with a man-advantage.
Pick: Under (5.5)
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.