Should it be hard to be “surprised” at a tournament like the 2023 IIHF Worlds? After all, the cities of Riga and Tampere are hosting an event to which Team USA and Team Sweden recruited about a dozen combined NHL skaters, for which the Red Machine of Russia is banned from participating, and in which career Division 1 squads like Hungary have toiled in the round-robin. In hindsight, something crazy was bound to happen.
But there’s nothing to make a bracket unpredictable like the favored teams collapsing one-by-one. Heck, just ask any National Hockey League fan who’s paying attention in spring ’23. Finland, the favorite to win again coming into the 2023 IIHF World Championship, had a lousy performance from beginning to end, starting with an upset by Team USA that just didn’t put off the atmosphere of a host-match in a nation like Suomi. Finland’s home games are typically marked by blue-painted boys beating drums, and hanging off the rafters. Finland’s opener against the United States and subsequent round-robin games had more of the atmosphere of a corporate buy-out at a St. Louis Blues vs Arizona Coyotes faceoff. Not that the host team wasn’t a complete let-down from the beginning for reasons that went beyond quiet crowd support. But if pundits were looking for some type of inspiration to turn 2022’s world champions around, they were destined to keep on waiting. Suomi, like many Olympic winners on a downturn, appears to be suffering from age and attrition. Canada’s blow-out victory on Thursday had the Finns sulking and sagging in their seats long before the last whistle.
It’s still surreal to find out that Mikko Rantanen of the Colorado Avalanche was essentially blanked on all points of the scoresheet for 4 straight games to close out the Worlds. Maybe the IIHF Worlds is a “best on best” tournament after all, except that the “best” part is limited to Europe’s elite checkers and defenders, who can’t crash the net like NHLers but don’t allow anyone else to either. Few stateside opponents have come close to shutting down Rantanen’s top-6 NHL lineups for so many turns consecutively as the “weak” IIHF field of this spring.
Yes, the Finns play a cautious, disciplined style that tends to depress point-scoring from internationally known snipers who toil for the 2-time champs of last year. But the team wasn’t only outclassed by Canada. Teams that thought they could ride just a few NHL playmakers to an improved attack have largely flopped at the 2023 Men’s Worlds, and Finland is no longer the best defending team with the best gap control in Europe.
WagerBop believes that close games and overtimes are what help make hockey the most suspenseful sport outside of baseball. The presence of so many stubborn checkers isn’t a buzzkill per-se, no matter how many NHL snipers are sitting this year out. IIHF netminding isn’t solid enough to blank a team unless a sleepy opposing attack cooperates with poor rushes. In fact, the only thing stopping the 2023 Worlds from being a genuine thrill-ride has been the prevalence of cautious tactics in shut-out victories. Canada began the tournament by shutting-out Latvia, in a notably lopsided game given the usual North American struggle to get organized for a debut. It won’t prove so simple to stop Roberts Bukarts’ team in Saturday’s semifinal rematch, but Canada’s next opponent has relied on its European positional game more than a deadly offense, even against teams like Slovenia and Norway. Canada’s upset round-robin loss to Norway showed that “glamor” leagues of Finland, Russia, and Switzerland aren’t the world’s only elite defenders on international ice.
Once the defending Finns proved to be an empty shell in mid-May, it was time for another London betting favorite to step to the fore in Team Switzerland. The Swiss dominated Group B, the tougher of the IIHF Worlds’ 2 round-robin pools this season, allowing 0 goals in any of the first 3 contests behind a powerful lineup led by Nico Hischier of the NHL’s New Jersey Devils. But the #1 seed’s downfall in the medal round, like Finland’s, had a lot to do with age. Leonardo Genoni is getting too old to paint masterpieces for the otherwise well-positioned Swiss. A soft go-ahead goal allowed to Germany in the quarterfinals set the favorites on edge and allowed Nico Sturm’s squad to go into its preferred mode of choking defense. Switzerland never took a lead in a shocking 3-1 loss that was far from Thursday’s only surprise.
Team USA is making an out-of-nowhere run at the medal stand. The United States’ gold medal odds, thanks to the eliminations of the IIHF’s pre-tournament and post-Group Stage kingpins, are standing at (+135) at FanDuel Sportsbook. The relatively new bookmakers at FanDuel might not realize it, but that’s rare air for USA Hockey following decades of frustration in the Worlds and in Men’s Ice Hockey at the Olympics.
USA’s forward lines have been busy rubbing egg in our blog’s face over our prediction of slow death for the team’s AHL-laden roster in Tampere. In fact, Rocco Grimaldi and T.J. Tynan, a pair of “scab” Olympic team representatives from the American Hockey League in 2022, have actually led the Stars & Stripes in points scored thus far. That’s not a miracle, or a sign that either man is about to sign with the Boston Bruins for $50,000,000, as Team USA has rewarded its non-NHL Olympians and flourishing NCAA skaters with prodigious power-play minutes against 2023’s weak sisters whom Team USA clobbered by 6-9 goals.
But at the same time, it’s impossible not to notice that the United States could be the fastest team left alive at the 2023 Worlds. With a host of previously loyal NHL names still turning the Yanks’ coaches down following COVID-19, USA Hockey made the wise move (that’s the true shocker!) of recruiting a lineup so fast, if it did not provide NHL strength or body-checking, it would at least come with some genuine NHL speed. Czechia’s weakness for about a decade-on-end has been a lack of team speed, giving the American youngsters another chance to wheel-and-deal for a win on Thursday. It’s almost like a Team USA we remember from about 40 years ago that was populated with college kids, yet managed to do everything faster, quicker, and sharper compared to all of its rivals … including what just happened to be the greatest bloody team of all time.
Sorry. You had to know it was coming.
The bummer caveat to any 1980-2023 analogy is that “Eruzione’s” team only recruited a solid top-6 to play in the gold medal round. In other words, sure, this season’s Team USA is fast enough and good enough to win a “miracle” Cinderella title, except that Mike Modano didn’t show up after hurting his hand playing Golden Tee. Gary Suter’s wife’s friend is having a baby shower, so he couldn’t make it to the Worlds either. Jim Craig? Hangnail.
Any variety of USA vs Canada final would give the IIHF Worlds a media presence in North America that it doesn’t usually enjoy, though it’s rather ironic that this year’s “start-up” version of the Stars & Stripes could wind up embarrassing USA Hockey’s veteran Worlds team, usually led by Patrick Kane, just by earning a medal presentation of any kind. The United States has whiffed on so many winnable IIHF and Olympic tournaments with star-studded lineups that included Brett Hull, Modano, and so on, that the nation’s international hockey effort has become like a time-loop of the 2022-23 New York Rangers which lasts perpetually. 2023’s grab-bag lineup of speedsters can change all that in a blink by winning the World Championship, but it would be hard for Team USA fans not to ask why the superstars can’t do it.
Also, the timing of the IIHF’s medal round makes it well-nigh impossible to cover the gold medal game in a published blog post. If the International Ice Hockey Federation ever reconsiders its tradition of making the world champion win 3 times in 4 days at the end of the event, it could potentially make as much of a positive difference as shifting the dates 2-3 weeks later so that even Stanley Cup Finals representatives can become eligible to play. The semifinals are fine with almost 48 hours between the faceoffs and the previous round. Championship games are another story so long as the IIHF keeps this up. If the Yanks and the Maple Leaf indeed meet in a title match overseas that’s broadcast on Sunday, it’ll be a warm surprise to a lot of folks.
So instead of nattering on with more long-form analysis on Saturday’s semifinals, let’s give the odds on each matchup a quick check for what could be the safest and most enjoyable picks for IIHF newbies this Memorial Day weekend. Then, the blog will look at all 4 of the “hypothetical” gold-medal games that can occur on Sunday, hopefully lending some advice as to what speculators and partisan flag-wavers can expect.
IIHF Worlds Semifinals: Previews and Recommended Betting Picks
Saturday, May 27: Canada vs Latvia
Saturday’s early game is an example of how the biggest IIHF Worlds story always seems to find Team Canada, whether the Habs prevail in the end or not. Team Latvia’s victory over Sweden, and a resulting semifinal berth amidst a 6-game winning streak at the World Championship has caused an outbreak of joy in Riga that can’t be described, only witnessed. Latvia’s first 2 goals against Tre Kronor were pure poetry in motion.
Congratulations Latvia! 🇱🇻 pic.twitter.com/T3aKdLGbet
— Jaroslav Harušťák (@harustak81) May 25, 2023
We’ll reject any idea of Latvia as a “Cinderella” or miracle team in the semifinals, and not because so many weak rosters have showed up at the Worlds over the last 2-3 years. The lineup’s Dinamo Riga skaters, now flung to the minor leagues of Europe due to political tension in wartime, are demonstrating again that absolutely elite players from European club teams are some of the world’s greatest open-ice defenders. The speculating on Latvia and Sweden’s quarterfinal, at least in the United States, centered on the usual shortsighted conceit that the team with more NHL skaters would win and advance. Latvia was a 3-to-1 underdog, but a 3-to-1 underdog with the host crowd, fresher legs, and a deeper lineup than Sweden’s expurgated unit … to go with an upstart goaltender at the top of his form in 22 y/o Arturs Silovs.
Canada’s team is decidedly “meat wagon” and lacking in big names this year. But the Habs looked just fine destroying Finland in the quarterfinals, and Latvia won’t have such a blistering loud home-ice edge over Canada after traveling to what’s been a subdued Tampere. What’s more, it would go against Canada’s tendencies to lose to a slower team in the medal round, just like it’s Canada’s tendency to defeat fast, diminutive skaters from Hungary or Denmark with ease in the round-robin. Fast opponents can serve to “awaken” the Maple Leaf in what would otherwise be laconic early-round faceoffs. Team Canada knows how to bargain with faster rivals on big ice, even without Xs and Os specialist Ryan O’ Reilly on 2023’s team. Norway’s slow, methodical style lulled Canada into a game full of trapping and bad-angle shots when the Norwegians scored their latest historic upset this year. It’s hard to imagine the 5’9, 160-pound skaters of Romania (faster than Norway’s reserve lines, for sure) doing the same thing to the proud Canadians. In medal-round games with elimination on the line, Team Canada’s cool confidence always turns to stark desperation and alarm when on the back-check. It takes a rapid attacking team to outscore the Habs.
Canada will forecheck the heck out of Latvians toiling away from home for the first time in ’23. Despite the fine goaltending and transition play from a Team Latvia squad on a mission, look for Canada to dominate the 2nd period on route to a relatively easy win and another berth in the World Championship finals. Latvia is a similar (+320) underdog against Canada on Saturday, but the betting odds are more accurate this time.
WagerBop’s Pick: Canada ATS (-1.5) (-140)
Saturday, May 27: United States vs Germany
Could the Germans pull off another “trap-tastic” upset bid against a superior foe, such as the game plan that nearly vanquished a loaded Russian team at the 2018 Olympics? That’s not exactly how Germany upset Switzerland on Thursday, but it’s noteworthy that Sturm’s dad Marco was the mastermind that day.
Team USA is due to hit its usual sudden roadblock in the IIHF’s medal round. The question is, could it really come from Germany, which has a contingent of 5-6 key North American players (including Leon Draisaitl) still sitting out the Worlds while Nico Sturm takes double and triple shifts?
There’s actually a number of sneaky-solid playmakers on the German team who’ve been overlooked by the NHL, such as 2018 Olympic hero Dominick Kahun. The very best skaters of the DEL are comparable to many of the NCAA and AHL talents toiling for a 75% “replacement” version of Team USA. Yet the Americans are likely to out-play the Germans in goal, and there’s a far superior betting opportunity on the pregame board than a moon-shot underdog pick on Germany to beat a swift, confident USA lineup.
FanDuel’s odds on Over (5) total goals in Saturday’s later game are way different than the chintzy price on that line found elsewhere. It’s also a fantastic pick, given the chance of a Team USA blow-out, and the fact that if the American team has a weakness to worry about, it’s a lack of world-class checking on the blue line.
WagerBop’s Pick: Over (5)
IIHF Worlds Gold Medal Game Outlook: Previews of 4 Hypothetical Matchups
Canada vs Team USA
The biggie. The coup de grace. The matchup that would at-long-last get a plurality of NHL fans talking about the Worlds at water coolers around the USA. But we’re afraid it could be a lopsided game in favor of Team Canada, given how much richer the Habs are in veteran NHL 20-goal scorers.
Canada vs Germany
Since the Maple Leaf’s biggest problem in IIHF tournaments remains goaltending – and NHL general managers’ reluctance to steer a star netminder in his national team’s direction – the Canadians aren’t always a great pick in the World Championship final. But they would be against Germany, which can boast of only a DEL goaltender in the way of 15+ NHL snipers if Canada faces the upstarts instead.
Team USA vs Latvia
Cool matchup of American leagues against European leagues. Both teams would be a grab-bag of talent on paper, but it might be hard to hold back a Latvian squad of destiny on a 7-game streak, especially since the United States youngsters tend to attack with too many skaters in big moments, and can leave themselves wide-open to just the sort of beautiful counter-rushes and goals Latvia takes pride in.
Germany vs Latvia
A gold-medal bout of Cinderellas would be won by the nation with the loveliest women, of course.
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.