The preliminary round of the 2021 IIHF World Championship came to an end on Tuesday in Riga, Latvia with a total of four Buffalo Sabres players and prospects advancing to the quarterfinal round.
Tage Thompson and the United States were able to capture the top spot in Group B action thanks to a 4-2 win over Italy on Tuesday.
After an opening game loss to Arttu Ruotsalainen and Finland back on May 22, the U.S. has strung together six-straight wins en route to the No. 1 seed out of Group B. Some of those wins came over teams like Canada, Germany, and host nation Latvia.
With the top seed in Group B secured, the U.S. will prepare to take on the fourth seed from Group A, Slovakia, in the quarterfinal round of the tournament. Opening faceoff on Thursday is slated to take place at 9:15 a.m. ET.
As for Thompson, the 23-year-old finished his preliminary round with a goal and an assist in five games played. He did miss a pair of games due to a minor injury, but was able to return and continue serving in a depth role on the U.S. roster. Despite only playing in five games, Thompson finished the preliminary round leading the United States with 20 shots on goal, while averaging 13:51 of total ice-time.
This past season in Buffalo saw Thompson start to play a bigger role on the Sabres roster, especially after Don Granato took over head coaching duties on an interim basis for Ralph Krueger. He would appear in 38 games this season, scoring eight goals and registering six assists for 14 points.
Meanwhile, Ruotsalainen and Finland finished in second place in Group B action, and will get ready to face the third-seed from Group A, the Czech Republic, in the quarterfinals at 1:15 p.m. ET on Thursday.
It took Ruotsalainen a bit to get going in the first couple games of the preliminary round, but the 23-year-old really started to pick up the pace as the tournament picked up. In seven games dressed for the Finns, Ruotsalainen was able to net four goals and pick up an assist for five points. He also led Finland in shots on goal with 21, while averaging 16:15 of ice-time per-game.
In Finland's final game of the preliminary round on Tuesday, Ruotsalainen had his best outing of the tournament with two goals in regulation, followed by the game-winning shootout goal in a 3-2 win over Canada. He was named as Finland's Player of the Game following the win, which gave the Finns a chance at winning Group B.
Ruotsalainen started the tournament playing at center on Finland's top line, but has since moved back to the wing while playing on a line with Florida Panthers first round pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, Anton Lundell, as well as Niko Ojamäki. That trio has played exceptionally well for the Finns since being put together full-time in the third game of the tournament.
The native of Oulu, Finland started his 2020-21 season playing with Ilves-Tampere in the Finnish Liiga, where he led the league through 19 games played with 16 goals and 27 points.
Once training camps opened for the season in North America, Ruotsalainen made the trek over to Buffalo, where he would start the season in the American Hockey League with the Rochester Americans. In just 13 games played with the Amerks, Ruotsalainen was a point per-game player with five goals and eight assists for 13 points.
In early April, Ruotsalainen would get his first official call up to the NHL, where he made his NHL debut four days later on April 9. In just his second-career game, the Finnish forward scored his first NHL goal against the Philadelphia Flyers in a 5-3 win for Buffalo at Wells Fargo Center.
Ruotsalainen went on to play 17 games for the Sabres this season, where he scored five goals and added an assist for six point. He, too, found success on the ice playing under Granato, as he was earned some quality ice-time towards the end of the season in Buffalo.
Meanwhile, Germany featured a pair of Sabres players taking part in Group B action.
Tobias Rieder is a long-time veteran of playing for Germany in international competition, as he took part in his fifth IIHF World Championship. In seven games played with the Germans this year, Rieder contributed a goal and two assists for three points, while averaging 14:54 of total ice-time.
Rieder joined the Sabres this past offseason as an unrestricted free agent to serve mainly as a depth piece on the roster and help out a struggling penalty kill. The 28-year-old rotated quick a bit in-and-out of the lineup throughout the season, playing in 44 games while scoring five goals and registering two assists.
Meanwhile, J-J Peterka was registered late to the German roster in group play despite being part of the initial roster ahead of the tournament. The second round pick of the Sabres (34th overall) in the 2020 NHL Draft managed to play in three games for Germany, where he scored a goal in Tuesday's win over Latvia in the final game of the preliminary round. He was also able to register three shots on goal, while averaging 11:47 of ice-time as a 19-year-old on the roster.
Peterka started the 2020-21 season playing in Austria, where he found some good success playing on a loan with EC Salzburg. In 12 games played before taking part in the 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship. Peterka was able to score seven goals and add nine assists for 16 points.
At the World Juniors, the native of Munich was able to continue his success as a team leader, scoring four goals and adding six assists for 10 points in just five games. Germany would fall short in the quarterfinal round, where they suffered a 2-1 defeat at the hands of Russia.
Peterka would then return to Germany and play the remainder of his 2020-21 season with EHC München in the Deutsche Eishockey Liga, where he continued to play well with nine goals and 11 assists for 20 points in 30 games.
The youngster still has one more year left on his contract in Germany before he likely signs his entry-level contract with the Sabres and makes the jump to North America.
As for the Germans, they finished the preliminary round seeding third in Group B, and will take on the second seed in Group A, Switzerland, in the quarterfinals at 9:15 a.m. ET on Thursday.
Finally in Group B, Canada was barely able to hold off the likes of Kazakhstan and Latvia to qualify as the fourth and final team in the group. They will match up with the top seed from Group A, Russia, in the quarterfinals on Thursday at 1:15 p.m. ET.
Sabres defenseman Colin Miller did start the tournament playing for the Canadians, but he will miss the remainder of the tournament due to an undisclosed injury. The 28-year-old managed to dress in four games for Canada in the tournament, where he registered an assist and averaged 18:17 of total ice-time.
Miller managed to appear in 48 games with the Sabres this season, where he contributed with four goals and eight assists for 12 points as a depth defenseman on the roster. He still has one more year remaining on his contract with the Sabres before becoming an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2022.
Two of Buffalo's players failed to qualify for the quarterfinal round of the IIHF World Championship after Sweden completely laid an egg throughout the tournament. The Swedes finished the preliminary round with a 3-0-1-3 record in seven games, finishing as the fifth seed in Group A with 10 points.
Sabres winger Victor Olofsson finished the tournament tied as Sweden's leading goal scorer with three tallies in seven games. He also added an assist to his scoresheet for four points, while averaging 16:47 of total ice-time for the Swedes, which included some top minutes on the power play.
After an impressive rookie season with the Sabres that saw him finish seventh in Calder Trophy voting, Olofsson took a slight step back in production this past season with 13 goals and 19 assists for 32 points in 56 games. If he had played a full 82-game season during the 2020-21 campaign, the 25-year-old was on pace for 19 goals and 28 assists for 47 points.
Olofsson has one more year remaining on his contract with the Sabres at $3.05 million before becoming a restricted free agent again in the summer of 2022.
While defenseman Lawrence Pilut is not officially under contract with the Sabres, his rights are still held by the team after the team extended a qualifying offer to him this past offseason.
The 25-year-old defenseman finished his 2021 IIHF World Championship with the Swedes with two assists in seven games, while averaging 17:53 of ice-time per-game.
Pilut spent this past season playing for Traktor Chelyabinsk in the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia, where he managed to score seven goals and add 21 assists for 28 points in 57 games. He remains under contract in the KHL for one more year before the Sabres could elect to re-sign him.
Buffalo holds on to his rights for two more seasons.
You can watch Team USA's quarterfinal matchup with Slovakia on Thursday starting at 9:15 a.m. ET on NHL Network.
***Photo: Jari Pestelacci - Just Pictures via Sipa USA