The best defense of the annual IIHF World Championships is not that the event’s trademark mish-mash of strong and weak rosters is equivalent to a “best on best” extravaganza, but rather that the Worlds provide an accurate snap-shot of where the Good Old Hockey Game and its national teams are at a given time.
For instance, Hockey Canada was so enthralled with its gold medals at the 2010 and 2014 Olympic Games that it did the unthinkable for a North American nation, and began trying to win the IIHF Worlds with the toughest lineups it could cobble together, sending Ryan O’ Reilly – the Kevin McHale of the NHL – to captain the team as many times as the former Buffalo Sabres workhorse was willing to fly across the pond.
Canada’s push culminated in back-to-back trophies in 2015 and 2016 with Sidney Crosby leading the way over an All-Star lineup from Team Russia in a memorable ’15 final. But as the cliché goes, big money got in the way, as NHL goaltenders became higher and higher-priced commodities. Canada’s IIHF Worlds goaltending depth charts became weaker and the gold medals dried up, leaving a Team Sweden full of veteran NHL players to win the tournament twice in a row. Then coronavirus hit Canada, making life even more difficult for Maple Leaf personnel managers in Latvia this year, just as it presents challenges for so many Canadians back home.
Speaking of Team Russia, the Red Machine has suffered on-ice from political problems (sound allegorical enough yet?) that have distanced great skaters like Pavel Datsyuk and Sergei Mozyakin and left the rank-and-file to serviceable, loyal, yet limited KHL cogs. Finland has had similar problems, but managed to overcome a total lack of NHL participation by becoming the first modern team to win a World Championship without any active NHLers on the roster in 2019.
The 2021 Worlds have been an AHL-level derby, a reminder that some international sports are just starting to find their footing after a long black-out on the calendar.
There have been bright spots, of course, not the least of which is WagerBop’s prediction of chaotic underdog bids coming true 5-fold in the Group Stage already. Liam Kirk leading a resurgent Great Britain program (and leading the IIHF Worlds in goals-scored) has been phenomenal to watch, along with Finland and Canada’s slow, gritty climb back into contention that followed some embarrassing losses in early faceoffs.
Russia Russian Olympic Committee, despite icing another catch-as-catch-can roster in 2021, has easily been the best and most-explosive team throughout Group Stage, marking the Russians a 2-to-1 gold-medal wager going into the Q-Finals.
2021 IIHF Worlds: Updated Futures Odds Prior to the Quarterfinal Round
(Odds courtesy of Bovada Sportsbook)
Russian Olympic Committee +200
Czech Republic +750
Perhaps the nearly-unbeaten Russians are free from the bounds of celebrity, emancipated from the stress of trying to parse-out minutes for forward lines laden with NHL superstars, and are just playing hockey now. 2021’s “ROC” team, led by Mikhail Grigorenko and Nikita Nesterov, polished-off every Group A contender in regulation, save for an OT challenge from the desperate, doomed Swedes.
But the #1 reason for ROC’s thin gold-medal odds wasn’t even a factor in Group Stage. The Red Machine has managed to call on a few additional NHLers to fill gaps on the team, players who lost in Round 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs. That’s not a big deal in-and-of itself since many national squads save a roster spot or 3 for late-coming NHL stars at the Worlds. However, this time it could be a massive deal, as the players Russia has recruited seem tailor-made to answer lingering questions about the 2021 lineup.
Sergei Bobrovski is in Latvia, ready to man the posts for the Red Machine in what the Russians hope will be 3 upcoming games. St. Louis Blues sniper Vladimir Tarasenko has already arrived and suited up, as has NHL defenseman Dimitri Orlov, combining for 3 points in ROC’s final Group Stage outing. Team Russia has been criticized for its goaltending, its blue line, and its lack of scoring depth when NHL and KHL stars sit-out the Worlds. Bobrovski, Tarasenko, and Orlov are just what the doctor (or perhaps the Kremlin) ordered.
Team USA, now preparing for a quarterfinal against a Slovakia team that handed ROC its only defeat on May 24, was an overrated pre-IIHF Worlds bet at 9/1 and remains too highly priced at 4-to-1 gold medal odds now. But the Yanks deserve praise for playing smart, athletic pond shinny for 2 weeks, beating the Canadians by a lopsided score, and finishing atop Group B with the fewest-allowed goals in 7 games. Team USA’s Q-Final draw is fortunate given Slovakia’s regressing form over the past several days, but a match-up with our very own adopted Eisgenossen lurks in the semifinal bracket.
WagerBop’s marquee IIHF Worlds futures pick is safe and sound, a #2 seed out of Group A with a +10 goal differential and a winnable quarterfinal game against Germany. Team Switzerland, though, had enough ugly episodes in Group Stage that a 25/1 gold-medal payoff doesn’t seem 1/10th as likely as a bronze-medal finish and a winner at 5.5/1. Switzerland was blown away 7-0 by Sweden, a team that didn’t even make the medal round, and later gave-up 3 goals to Great Britain’s squad of journeymen after losing to ROC 4-1.
There’s something missing from Team Finland, and that something is goaltender Kevin Lankinen, the most crucial piece of the winning puzzle in 2019. Suomi’s attack is lacking some punch too, with only 5 combined goals-scored against Italy and Kazakhstan in Group Stage games. Czech Republic skaters haven’t done a lot to justify (+750) odds either, aside from whipping rival Slovakia 7-3 on Tuesday.
Canada’s got a long row to hoe, starting with a battle against Bobrovski and the tournament’s best lineup of skaters in Thursday’s quarterfinals. But at least the oddsmakers and high-rollers of Las Vegas appear to have dialed-back the unbridled optimism about Team Canada after watching the Maple Leaf’s hand-over-fist struggle just to finish in 4th place and avoid an historic absence from the medal round.
IIHF World Championship Quarterfinal Previews, Odds, and Predictions
Switzerland vs Germany
Good news for those who took our advice on pre-IIHF Worlds futures: Switzerland’s 2021 form has been limited in quality against very tough teams but the Swiss have been exceptional at winning the games they’re supposed to win, which is all that needs to happen for Eisgenossen to get 2 cracks – not 1 – at paying-off those “top 3” wagers. The Group A teams closest to Germany in talent, depth, and speed are Denmark and Slovakia, and the Swiss allowed exactly 1 goal in 6 periods against those 2 teams.
Bad news? Germany and Switzerland are fierce rivals, whose games are usually nail-biting. Grégory Hofmann of the National League is having a massive tournament and out-shining teammates from the more heralded National Hockey League of North America, including Nico Hischier and Timo Meier. But the ’21 Swiss team isn’t any more talented than the 2018 “OAR” lineup of KHL All-Stars that faced Germany for Olympic gold, and on that day, a similar German roster held a lead on Kirill Kaprizov’s squad until just :56 seconds were left to play. Thursday’s game is no gimme, even for the team we suspect could arrive as a Cinderella by this weekend.
Updated Game Odds and Our Pick: Under (5) goals is a high percentage choice given Germany’s stubborn style and Switzerland’s penchant for beginning any new chore methodically.
United States vs Slovakia
Team Slovakia has a clear path to beating Team USA on Thursday. Forge and hold a lead into the 2nd period, and put pressure on an inexperienced batch of NHL and NCAA green-horns in an unfamiliar environment. Nobody defends on big ice like a team of 20+ determined European club pros.
The caveat – a great big one – is that Slovakia isn’t likely to take a lead or hold a lead on the Americans, with a leaky defense corps and goaltending of the sort that does not cling in conjunction with “IIHF Worlds medals.” United States and Switzerland should each wind up with 2 chances at bling following Thursday’s quarterfinals.
Updated Game Odds and Our Pick: Team USA is a solid ATS wager at (+125) payoff odds. United States (-1.5)
Russia vs Canada
Something happens when Canada plays Russia in ice hockey. No matter who’s got the more-vaunted lineup or a perceived edge in psychology, the game turns into a tense, dramatic, emotional grudge match with lots of near-breakaway chances, 50/50 plays at the blue line, and other hair-raising twists of fate, something during the same shifts. Ruling against that history in a Russia-Canada prediction could be unwise.
But the history also shows that it takes great goalies to stop really good offensive attacks from either Russia or Canada. Darcy Kuemper isn’t a gold-medal netminder in a World Championship anymore, but he’s the best the Habs have, and he’ll be going up against a Florida Panthers mainstay with several superior snipers in front of him.
Updated Game Odds and Our Pick: Kuemper may get the blame, but what about Canuck GKs in better physical shape who endlessly get talked into not playing? It’s not the current goaltending corps’ fault for being there. Russia (-1.5) (+125) or Over (5)
Finland vs Czech Republic
This could be the hardest Q-Final to pick from a “sides” point of view. Pundits will look at the team leaders and decide that Dominik Kubalik has it all over Marko Anttila, but the Ant Man’s value to the Lions is about much more than pure speed or point-scoring. Neither team’s goaltending has stood out as superb, and Finland’s iron defensive scheme should make up for any gap in talent on the blue line with players like Filip Hronek patrolling for the Czechs.
Hronek does potentially give the Czech Republic a boost from the point with a man advantage. Finland’s special teams are capable and could be due for positive GF/GA reversion in the medal round.
Updated Game Odds and Our Pick: The weird thing about international hockey is that the games can get boring when teams are too-evenly matched on the ice. Here’s a subversive sports POV: Let’s hope Friday brings more disparity! Under (4.5) (+115)
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.