December 26th kicks off the 2022 World Junior Championships, opening with a four-game slate that offers some reprieve to what’s been a hockey-less schedule for NHL fans the past few days. With games on the 27th postponed as well, it’s an even more welcome addition to the holiday season. The last game on the schedule for today is a Group B matchup between the United States and Slovakia.
2022 World Junior Championships Predictions
United States vs. Slovakia
Sunday’s last matchup sees a team that’s beginning their gold medal defence face off against one that’s won just two medals in the history of the tournament. Normally, this would be a forgettable game. Yet Slovakia should be one of the biggest dark horses in this tournament, spearheaded by a tournament-high nine players under 18 years old. They’re tasked with winning Slovakia’s first medal since their bronze win in 2015, a run largely driven by the incredible play of Denis Godla in goal.
The United States returns without much of its starpower from last year. Yet still, they have a good depth of talent that makes them an appealing medal pick. Trevor Zegras though, who had an incredible 18 points in seven games, has aged out. They don’t have a player on the roster with his gamebreaking abilities. There will need to be a good team effort in order for the Americans to repeat as gold medalists in 2022.
After blowing a 3-1 lead to Finland in their pre-tournament game, the United States will need to play a much intentional and disciplined game against the Slovaks to ensure a win. An unnecessary elbow from Detroit Red Wings prospect Red Savage gave the Finns a five-minute power-play late in the game, allowing them to score twice to tie it and then get the overtime winner. They’ll need to be more ready against a Slovakia team that’s armed to surprise.
All eyes will be on the University of Michigan trio of Matthew Beniers (Seattle Kraken), Mackie Samoskevich (Florida Panthers), and Luke Hughes (New Jersey Devils) to make their presence known at their first World Juniors. They were all taken in the first round during the 2021 NHL Draft and will be responsible for a lot of the work that needs to be done to replace the likes of Zegras and Cole Caufield on the scoresheet.
There are other big question marks for the States that will be put to the test in this game. Drew Commesso (Chicago Blackhawks) is the new man between the pipes, and he’ll need to prove that he can do battle with the best goalies at this tournament. The lone 2022 draft-eligible skater on this roster is Logan Cooley. He’s a center with 38 points through just 27 games with the US National Team Development Program. A good performance from him in this game and tournament will bolster the Americans’ already-appealing depth. It would also help solidify his place as a top-ten prospect this year. Their overall depth of talent, however, still makes them a solid favourite against the Slovaks to open the tournament.
Despite having only three players drafted to NHL teams on their squad, Slovakia brings their most intriguing offering to the tournament in recent memory. Defenseman Samuel Knazko (Columbus Blue Jackets) returns from last year’s squad to again serve as the team’s captain in his last year of eligibility.
However, the youth is the focal point of this Slovak team. Defenseman Simon Nemec and wingers Juraj Slafkovsky and Filip Mesar make up the trio of likely 2022 Slovakian first-round selections. There’s also center Servac Petrovsky, winger Adam Sykora, defenseman Viliam Kmec and goalie Rastislav Elias. They could get looks in the later rounds. A name that could make a serious impact for them too is 16-year-old Dalibor Dvorsky, a centerman who’s impressed for Slovakia internationally. He’s working his way into the top-five conversation for the 2023 NHL Draft. With 27 points in 20 games for AIK J20 in the top Swedish junior league, he’s a player to watch.
Goaltending could be a strength for the Slovaks as well. 19-year-old Simon Latkoczy performed stellarly in three games last year, posting a shutout and .922 save percentage. With a youthful core and strong goaltending, they could certainly give the defending champions a run for their money.
It’ll be tough for Slovakia to get favourable positioning in Group B. There’s Russia, Sweden, and the United States in the way. A win against just one of those teams would be huge for them in getting a better playoff matchup. However, while the United States is a weakened team from last year, their long list of NHL-drafted depth is hard to ignore. While Slovakia should make this an entertaining matchup, expect the defending champions to get off to a triumphant start at the 2022 World Junior Championships.
Prediction: United States win 4-3.
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