By Kris Baker for Sabres.com
Defenseman Vojtech Budik (2016, fifth round) and the Czech Republic are heading to the semifinal round of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship following Tuesday's 4-3 shootout victory over Finland.
Budik, who captured one assist in the win for his fourth point of the tournament, did a nice job throughout the contest using his size and long reach to break up plays and chip pucks off the boards.
He was quite steady defensively for the Czechs, only expanding his offensive game when the Czech Republic was pressing late in the third period in search of the game-tying goal, which they eventually scored to force overtime.
Budik's helper came in the game's 35th minute when he used the boards to clear the zone with a backhand that led to a Kristian Reichel goal on the ensuing transition.
The Finns brought the heat on the forecheck in the early stages, but Budik's overall workload was relatively light in the opening period with not much in terms of sustained pressure or traffic in front of the net to attend to.
It was a different story in the second and third periods, though, as Budik saw his poise and awareness put to the test as the Finns started coming in waves to pile up a total of 54 shots.
Still, Budik proved to be a calming influence in his 26:09 of action to help the Czechs reach the semifinals for the first time since 2005.
The Czechs will face Canada, who advanced with an 8-2 triumph over Switzerland, at 8 p.m. at KeyBank Center.
Finland goaltender Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen (2017, second round) stopped 26 of 29 shots through regulation and overtime, but allowed two goals in the shootout to take the loss and head home without a medal.
Much as he has throughout the tournament, the composed Luukkonen came out to the edge of the paint to challenge shooters and looked comfortable exiting the net to handle the puck. His athleticism and demeanor serves as a solid foundation for Luukkonen as he continues to address some of the areas in his game that were exposed in his five World Junior starts.
With his team killing a penalty, Luukkonen allowed the first of three regulation goals at 6:20 of the first period.
The Czechs moved the puck around, and as Luukkonen rotated to his right to face the shooter, he left an opening over his right shoulder that allowed Filip Zadina to blow a shot past him on the short side.
With 5:43 left in the second period, Reichel broke in on the breakaway and got Luukkonen to drop with a forehand-to-backhand move before lifting the puck to tie the game 2-2. Luukkonen fell forward to make a play on the puck, but Reichel's quick hands won the battle to even the score prior to the second intermission.
A minute and half later, Luukkonen made an important save as Radovan Pavlik got inside position on Juuso Valimaki (CGY) and tried to squeeze a puck through his legs on a breakaway. Luukkonen was calm and stayed with Pavlik the entire way to shut the opportunity down.
Late in the third period with the Finns clinging to a one-goal lead, a shot from the point was tipped downward in the slot by Zadina through Luukkonen's legs to force extra time.
Luukkonen's shootout results:
The 18-year-old Luukkonen ends the tournament with a 2-3 record, 3.13 goals-against average, and a .879 save percentage. The only goalie to play every minute of his team's games, Luukkonen will likely get another crack at leading Finland back to medal contention when the 2019 tournament takes place in Victoria and Vancouver, British Columbia.
In the third quarterfinal of the day, Alexander Nylander (2016, first round) and Marcus Davidsson (2017, second round) were each held without a point as Sweden ended Slovakia's tournament hopes with a 3-2 win.
Nylander recorded one shot on goal in the victory, at times showing off his speed and skill while earning an even 17:00 of work. One instance saw Nylander blaze through the neutral zone with speed and dance to the middle with a nice one-on-one move that saw him crossover and cut while maintaining control of the puck.
Sweden's coaching staff certainly appreciates the individual flashes of brilliance, but they are likely hoping that Nylander can elevate his even-strength intensity over the next two contests as they pursue their first medal since 2014. It will also be key for the talented forward to hit the net with more shots as several of his attempts have missed high or wide as he looks to pick corners.
Davidsson, meanwhile, extended his run of consistent play with another strong effort that saw him collect two shots on goal as the team's checking line pivot. Davidsson was tabbed for 22 shifts, compared to Nylander's 19, but his total workload was considerably less with 11:57 logged.
Bring speed and detail down the middle, Davidsson's best scoring chance came early in the game when he cut to the net to get a clean look while on the penalty kill.
The role Davidsson is playing for Sweden in this tournament is exactly the role he'll be expected to play when he arrives in North America. He's committed to the work in front of him on every shift, and in that regard he has proven himself quite well leading up to the semifinal round.
In the day's final game, Casey Mittelstadt (2017, first round) recorded one assist as the United States punched their ticket to the medal round by defeating Russia 4-2.
Mittelstadt, who began the game lined up at center between Joey Anderson (NJD) and 2018 NHL Draft prospect Brady Tkachuk, was an all-situations player en route to earning 21:19 of ice time. His effort has not waned all tournament, with Mittelstadt playing with a two-way sense of urgency and being a key creator for the American attack.
On the second American goal, Mittelstadt chipped the puck away from the lunging goaltender to Kailer Yamamoto, who was stopped on his first shot but stuck with it to put his team up a goal 2-1. The helper was Mittlestadt's tournament-leading 10th point. He was unable to get a goal of his own with any of his four shots on goal.
The U.S. will take on Sweden at 4 p.m. at KeyBank Center on Thursday in the first of two semifinal matchups.
For tournament updates, follow Kris Baker on Twitter (@SabresProspects) and check out his website SabresProspects.com for news on Sabres players in the pipeline throughout the week.