Though many of the matchups are often lop-sided, Boxing Day often serves as a cautionary tale for most of the world hockey superpowers as World Junior Hockey Championship action gets underway.
Teams that were thrown together just a few weeks prior, and finalized just days before preliminary action was set to begin, often need more time to jell than a handful of practices. While pure talent often shines through, as was the case with Russia, Canada and the US, there's usually one team that struggles out of the gate.
Enter Sweden, the reigning silver-medalists, who were given an early test against Switzerland. The Swedes ultimately overcame a persistent Swiss team famous for ruining parties at the World Juniors (see: 2010), but needed a superb performance from team captain and Nashville Predators forward Filip Forsberg.
Forsberg, who is participating in his third tournament, stole the show in the host nation's opening game with a goal and two assists as they held Switzerland at bay, 5-3. It was Forsberg who responded almost immediately after the Swiss opened the scoring, notching one of his own just a minute and 11 seconds later.
In the third period, after Switzerland had pulled even on the power play, it was Forsberg again who set up a goal on the man advantage for Sweden, getting the secondary assist on Christian Djoos' game-winner. His combination of experience and high-end talent was one the Swedes were thrilled to reacquire when the Predators loaned him out for tournament play.
Russia runs rampant
Keeping in mind the new tournament structure where four teams from each group enter the knockout stage, goal differential takes on a much greater significance. Russia made no mistake about that, running up 11 on lowly Norway, who were outclassed in every facet of the game.
Anton Slepyshev, Nikita Zadorov and Vadim Khlopotov all chipped in with a pair of goals each, as this one was over almost as quickly as it started. Mikhail Grigorenko, who like Forsberg is also taking part in his third World Junior Championship tournament, had a goal and two assists in the rout.
Andrey Vasilevsky, who entered the tournament as the most high-profile goaltender, did nothing to dispell that sentiment, though was hardly tested. He made seven saves and tied the record for most World Junior Championship tournaments with three. Had he not been relieved midway through the second period, he might have been able to tie the all-time record for most shutouts at the tournament, currently held by Jaroslav Halak with four.
Canada, United States roll to victory
The stars were out for Canada in the tournament's opening game. Anthony Mantha's three goals, the first Canadian hat trick at the WJC since Mark Stone in 2011, led the way offensively in a sound 7-2 drubbing of Germany. Mantha was far from alone, as 16-year old phenom Connor McDavid dazzled, forcing a number of scoring opportunites, but was unable to find the back of the net. McDavid had two assists. Similarly, consensus top prospect for the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, Sam Reinhart, added a goal and an assist.
Jonathan Drouin, the third overall pick in the 2013 draft, added three assists and was a force with and without the puck, as has become the norm with the Halifax Mooseheads. After conceding the first goal, Jake Paterson settled down in net, making 22 saves. Zachary Fucale is expected to get the start in their next game on Saturday against the Czechs.
The defending gold-medalists also enjoyed a strong showing in their first preliminary game, downing the Czech Republic, 5-1. Goals from five different players, including two on the power play in the game's first two minutes and two seconds, paced the United States. Returning just three players from last year's championship squad, the Americans looked tentative at times, but overall played a good opening game.
Jack Eichel, who like McDavid is eligible to be drafted in 2015, was continously forcing the play, doing a lot of the little things you wouldn't quite expect to see from a 16-year old. He's been deployed as an excellent offensive weapon for the United States at every level thus far, and if his game can continue to translate, this team will be far more dangerous.
Jon Gillies was strong in net, stopping 23 of 24 shots he faced, including a few multiple-chance opportunities from the Czechs. Gillies, who was on the team a year ago but never saw the ice due to the brilliance of John Gibson, was a calming presence and will need to continue to be if this team is to challenge for a medal once again.
Stick with Puck Drunk Love all tournament long for coverage on the 2014 World Junior Hockey Championships. Be sure to follow @RealMikeSalerno on Twitter for up-to-the-minute updates during the games, with a side of snark for the road.
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