Canucks prospect Nils Höglander has arguably been the best player of the tournament at the 2020 World Junior Championships.
Höglander came into the semifinals as the tournament’s leading scorer with 10 points in 5 games, including the goal of the tournament, a magnificent lacrosse-style Zorro Goal against Finland.
One key aspect of Höglander’s superb tournament is his consistency. Rather than racking up points against a lesser opponent, Höglander put up points in every single game. Understandably, Sweden was depending on Höglander in their semifinal matchup against Russia. It was less than ideal, then, that Höglander got a game misconduct less than five minutes into the game.
Without Höglander, Sweden came close to defeating Russia, pushing the game to overtime, but surely Höglander’s creative flair would have made a difference in a tie game. All Sweden needed was one more goal. Considering Höglander has put up a point every single game, you have to believe he could have provided or set up that goal.
Instead, fellow Canucks prospect Vasili Podkolzin will be going on to the gold medal game with Russia rather than the top-seeded Swedes.
Sweden got off to a great start, scoring just 16 seconds into the game, but then they got into penalty trouble. Russia tied the game on their first power play thanks to some great work by Podkolzin along the boards, then a nice end-line pass to set up Ivan Morozov for the 1-1 goal.
Considering how many fantastic passes from Podkolzin haven’t turned into goals this tournament, it was gratifying to see one of them finally end up in the back of the net, even if it wasn’t as nifty a pass as some of his others.
A minute later, a Höglander hit changed the course of the game.
Höglander was skating up through the neutral zone when Russian captain Grigori Denisenko stepped up to pressure him. Höglander played the puck into the offensive zone, then veered left and elevated his shoulder into Denisenko’s head, following through with the elbow to send Denisenko flying.
Even by NHL standards, this was a clear hit to the head deserving of a penalty. In international hockey, which penalizes hits to the head far more harshly, it earned a five-minute major and a game misconduct.
A game misconduct may seem harsh for those used to watching NHL hockey, but the IIHF has cracked down on hits to the head. There are two options: a two-minute minor and a 10-minute misconduct, or the five and a game that Höglander received.
In my opinion, this was the right call. I appreciate that IIHF hockey takes head injuries seriously, as concussions can be life-altering. Höglander could have protected himself from a potential hit without elevating his shoulder into Denisenko’s head and following through. It was an unnecessary play.
It’s not the first time Höglander has gotten into trouble for a hit to the head this season, as he was suspended for an elbow to the head of Fredrik Styrman in the SHL in October.
Given that Höglander is just 5’9”, perhaps he feels he needs to play on the edge to protect himself on the ice, but he needs to find the line where he’s not making contact with the head when he makes a reverse hit. Höglander would likely say that these hits to the head were unintentional, but that just means he needs to adjust how he throws these hits, staying a little lower to ensure contact with the shoulder or chest.
The troubling aspect of Höglander’s hit on Denisenko is that Denisenko stayed in the game. Denisenko was seen on the bench with an ice pack on his neck, but never left the bench to go to a quiet room for any sort of concussion protocol. In fact, he was right back on the ice for the power play.
That’s unconscionable. The IIHF can’t say that it takes head injuries seriously with how it penalizes hits to the head, then not protect the players by ensuring they don’t risk a serious, life-altering concussion by returning to play after a hit to the head.
Russia made it 2-1 on the five-minute power play, with Denisenko picking up an assist on the goal. It shouldn’t have happened that way.
Swedish goaltender Hugo Alnefelt then gave the puck away for the 3-1 goal. It was an uncharacteristic play for Alnefelt, who was fantastic throughout the rest of the game.
The same wasn’t true of Russian goaltender Yaroslav Askarov, who seemed to be full of nervous energy, bouncing around in his crease instead of staying steady. He seemed to have trouble tracking the puck all game. He got beat cleanly by Samuel Fagemo on a Swedish power play to make it 3-2 before the end of the first period.
Fagemo then picked up an assist on Rasmus Sandin’s game-tying 3-3 goal in the second period, overtaking Höglander for the tournament lead in scoring.
Podkolzin nearly had another assist in the second period, as he sent a superb backhand pass across the crease to Marchenko. Alnefelt came up with a miraculous save, however, reaching back to get his stick on the shot. Once again, Podkolzin was racking up “almost assists.”
Another power play goal for Sweden in the third period led to another game-changing moment. After 4 goals against on 20 shots and some shaky play, Russia pulled Askarov from the game, replacing him with Amir Miftakhov, who stopped all five shots he faced for the rest of the game.
Askarov is just 17 years old, two years younger than some of the top goaltenders in this tournament, so perhaps the moment was just a bit too big for him. He had been fantastic in the tournament up until that point, with a .934 save percentage.
Down 4-3, Russia pushed hard in the third period for the tying goal, with Yegor Sokolov delivering with a ridiculous release off the rush, sending the puck upstairs over Alnefelt’s shoulder and under the bar. The rest of regulation solved nothing, and the game moved to 3-on-3 overtime.
That’s when Ivan Morozov took over, charging through the neutral zone, burning past Sandin, and sending a snap shot past Alnefelt. Podkolzin picked up the primary assist on the play, putting the puck on Morozov’s stick as he built up speed.
That gave Podkolzin two assists in the game and five points in six games for the tournament.
Russia will play the winner of the other semifinal between Finland and Canada, with the game scheduled for 10 AM on January 5th, airing on TSN.
The bronze medal game between Sweden and the loser of the Finland/Canada semifinal will air at 6 AM. It’s up in the air whether Höglander will be able to play, though a suspension on top of the game misconduct he already received seems a tad harsh.