“I’ll play for both of us.”
According to Nils Höglander’s parents in an interview with Hockey Sverige, those were Höglander’s final words to his older sister, Tilda, at the hospital before she passed away. She was only 13, and an excellent hockey player in her own right. He was 11.
Eight years later, Höglander is still playing hockey for both himself and his sister. Perhaps that inspiration is why he plays with such passion and joie de vivre on the ice and has taken his game to the highest level.
At the 2020 World Juniors, Höglander has established himself as the best player in the tournament. With three points in the quarterfinals against the host Czech Republic, he now has 10 points in 5 games, leading the tournament in scoring. He’s clearly been the breakout star of the World Juniors, even if he hadn’t scored a crazy Zorro Goal in Sweden’s very first game.
Höglander was at his best in the quarterfinal against the Czech Republic, scoring two goals and adding an assist for his first three-point game of the tournament. He wasn’t named Sweden’s Best Player, as teams tend to spread those awards around during the World Juniors and he was already named Best Player in their opening game. Instead, Swedish goaltender Hugo Alnefelt was named Best Player for Sweden, posting a shutout, albeit while only facing 23 shots.
While the Czechs were physical early and created a couple chances, Sweden eventually overwhelmed them with their puck possession, out-shooting them 16-8 in the first period and forcing the Czechs to take a series of penalties so the Swedish power play could go to work. The first of those power plays was drawn by Höglander on Washington Capitals prospect Martin Hugo Has with some slick moves in the corner.
The Czechs took two more penalties in short succession and, eventually, Höglander struck for the opening goal.
Despite his small stature, Höglander has never been afraid of the front of the net, and is frequently the net-front presence on the power play for Sweden, though he also rotates down low to make plays from below the goal line. His first goal came on a simple play, going to the front of the net, establishing position on Czech captain Libor Zabransky, then fighting off the stick lift to bang in the rebound.
Höglander then cockily “shushed” the Czech crowd, which had been quite loudly jeering the Swedes as they failed to convert on their power plays.
He added another goal in the second period, this time at even-strength. Once again set up in front of the net, Höglander gave Zabransky a shove in the back, establishing that he was battling for position in front, then immediately left the front of the net to open up for a one-timer. It was a smart play to create space — Höglander may not be able to win every physical battle, but he can certainly win the mental battle.
His one-timer was perfectly-placed: he didn’t try to go under the bar or beat Czech goaltender Lukas Dostal on the short side, but instead sent the puck low, along the ice, off the far post and in.
Höglander wrapped up the game with an assist on Sweden’s fifth and final goal, selling the one-timer, then sending the puck back-door with a terrific one-touch pass. Dostal didn’t have a hope of making the save, as he fully committed to a Höglander shot that never came.
With the 5-0 win, Sweden cruises into the semi-finals with an undefeated record and a tournament-best +17 goal differential. They’ll face Vasili Podkolzin and Russia in the semifinals, which are scheduled to air on TSN on January 4th at 6:00 AM.
With the loss to Sweden, fellow Canucks prospect Karel Plášek exits the tournament a little earlier than the host Czechs would have liked.
Plášek had two shots on goal against Sweden and nearly scored late in the second period, as he got his stick on a rebound during a wild scrum and the puck nearly deflected in off a Swedish skate, but Alnefelt was able to hold the line with his left pad. Plášek was also dinged for a slashing penalty early in the third period, but it was in error: his teammate Votech Strondala delivered the slash and Plášek just happened to be near him at the time.
Plášek finished the tournament with one assist in four games, but showed some real playmaking flair, particularly on the power play, and sometimes looked like the Czech Republic’s best skater.
Meanwhile, Vasili Podkolzin and Russia got past Switzerland without too much trouble. Russia out-shot Switzerland 36-to-15, dominating possession even if the score was only 3-1.
Podkolzin had three of those shots on goal in 20:23 in ice time, leading all Russian forwards in ice time and second only to defenceman Yegor Zamula overall. Yet again, Podkolzin was held off the scoresheet and, yet again, it’s hard to lay the blame at his feet for failing to record a point.
For instance, there was this lovely pass on the power play from below the goal line to set up Kirill Marchenko, but Marchenko hesitated on his shot, and when he did shoot, he sent the puck ringing off the post.
There was a brief scare in the second period where it looked like Podkolzin suffered an injury, but he shook it off. He was doing what he does best: chasing down the puck carrier, stealing the puck, then driving the other way. He made a great defensive play in the neutral zone, then lost an edge as he drove to the net, sliding shin first into the post.
Podkolzin and Höglander will be facing each other in the semifinals, with the winner earning bragging rights at the Canucks’ next prospect camp.
The last of the four Canucks prospects at the World Juniors is also heading to the semifinals, as Toni Utunen and Finland held on to a 1-0 lead to dispatch Team USA.
Finland played a heavy, physical game against USA, throwing some massive hits early on to set the tone. Justus Annunen bounced back from his rough outing against Switzerland to end the preliminary round, making 29 saves for the shutout, turning aside some fantastic chances from the USA snipers.
For Utunen’s part, he played his usual quiet, effective defensive game. With Finland dressing eight defencemen, he played just 13:36, but likely would have played more if Finland took more than two penalties.
Utunen’s highlight reel will never be overly exciting. It consists primarily of subtle defensive plays, like this well-timed stick lift on Trevor Zegras as he cuts to the net, preventing him from making the backdoor pass to Oliver Wahlstrom, which would probably have resulted in a goal.
Unlike last year, it doesn’t look like Utunen’s going to take on a larger role here in the elimination rounds. He and Finland will take on Canada in the semifinals after Canada crushed Slovakia 6-1 in the other quarterfinal. That game is scheduled for 10:00 AM on January 4th and will air on TSN.