Day: December 19, 2022

Croatia’s juniors win again

Croatia national Junior team

The Croatian men’s U20 national team celebrates after winning the 2023 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship Division II Group A.

By Henrik Manninen –

Newly promoted Croatia continued their rise to win the 2023 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship Division II Group A in Kaunas, Lithuania.

With only a few minor tweaks to their roster, Croatia’s U20 national team has now jumped two levels of World Championship play within the space of just three months. In September this year they celebrated promotion from Division IIB in Belgrade, Serbia in a tournament pushed ahead due to Covid-19. Now competing at a higher level in Kaunas, Lithuania and with momentum clearly on their side, they continued their winning ways. Croatia finished top of Division II Group A with 12 points in Kaunas. They were level on points with Great Britain whom the Croats had beaten 7-4 during day two to squeeze past their main rival to grab top spot.

“We have more or less the same team as from the previous World Championship in Belgrade. They know each other well and the chemistry is very good among the players. But I think this win is a miracle. We have one ice rink in Zagreb, so we are very happy,” said head coach Marko Sertic.

Croatia’s second Olympic-sized indoor rink in the entire country is in Sisak, 55 kilometers south of Croatia’s capital Zagreb. Despite conditions being far from ideal, Croatia’s U20 national team upset the odds at the Kaunas Ice Palace.

Their recipe for success combines a strong team spirit and sending players abroad to push ahead in their development. Half of their gold-winning roster skates for clubs outside of their home country. One of them is 16-year-old Bruno Idzan, the youngest skater on the Croatian team. Playing for HV71 Jonkoping’s junior program in Sweden, Bruno Idzan was Croatia’s leading scorer in Kaunas and was also selected as the best forward of the tournament by the directorate.

“It was nice to win. We didn’t start the tournament very well, but got better as the tournament got on. But we are very strong collectively as a team. We work for each other and that´s what makes us good,” said Bruno Idzan.

Forming a formidable partnership with his older brother of two years and seven months, Vito Idzan, Croatia’s lethal duo possessed special offensive skills that could turn a game in Croatia’s favour out of the blue.

“We know each other’s game very well, but we are also pretty different as players: He is more physical and stronger but also a more all-round player. I am more offensively focused than him, but together we make a good line,” said Bruno Idzan.

But it was far from plain sailing for the Croats en route to winning gold. Following their late arrival and with no ice practice in Kaunas ahead of their first game, the Croats had to settle for a sole point in their opening 2-3 overtime defeat against the Netherlands. In their third game, the Croats long trailed against hosts Lithuania in a tight contest before Vito Idzan tied the game in the third period. With the game decided on penalty shots, Vito Idzan, Fran Zavrski and Ante Bebek all converted to grab Croatia two valuable points. After having brushed aside Spain 9-5 on day four, they lost a four-goal cushion against winless Romania in a nail-biter of a closing game. Vito Idzan came to the rescue once again when powering through with his game-winning 5-4 goal 5:11 from the end.

“The Idzan brothers are special to us. Two very, very good individual players,” said Croatia’s head coach Sertic.

Croatia’s most clinical performance came against their main rival Great Britain on day two. Thanks to a fine piece of individual skill, GB’s Bayley Harewood left Croatia’s Karlo Marinkovic in his wake at the right face-off circle to get GB in front on a one-man advantage. But when the same Harewood sat out an interference call, Niksa Juric levelled the game after tipping home a Tin Alic wrister at 6:29. When Jonathan McBean became the next Brit to sit out a two-minute minor at 7:34, Croatia needed just 12 seconds to go in front. Team captain Vito Idzan one-timed a cross ice pass from Zavrski past Daniel Crowe. Zavrski once again was the provider at 15:18 when winning the face-off from which Niko Cavlovic stretched Croatia’s lead to 3-1. 54 seconds before the first intermission and once again on a power play, Marinkovic picked out Bebek in the slot for a clinical 4-1 strike.

“The level is quite high over here. It’s quite fast and a change of pace from back home. But we were in the penalty box so much and they capitalized on that a lot,” said Great Britain’s Juha Lindgren.

Great Britain’s penalty worries continued to cost dearly during the middle frame. Jacob White-Sey was sitting out for a tripping call as Croatia scored their fourth goal on a one-man advantage. Juric reacted ahead of GB blueliner Liam Steele to score his second of the afternoon at 29:00. The influential Vito Idzan then scored his second of the afternoon as the Croats celebrated their six unanswered goal to run away with a 6-1 lead at 31:02. Crowe was then replaced by Benjamin Norton in the GB net who held out throughout the rest of the middle frame.

“I tried to play hard and give everything I could and see what I could do out there. It’s my last U20 tournament, but hopefully, I can make it for the GB men’s team later on in life. I also try to take what I have learnt here to impact on my game back home,” said GB’s Lindgren, who scored on a rebound to pull one back for the British on the power play at 42:59. They got another consolation in Archie Hazeldine’s goal at 47:08. Speedy Bruno Idzan scored Croatia’s seventh with an empty netter with 36 seconds left to play. 16 seconds before the end Great Britain’s Oliver Endicott closed the scoring, 7-4.

Defensively solid Lithuania finished with the bronze medals in front of their home crowd with Kazimieras Jukna selected as the best goalkeeper of the tournament by the directorate. Spain ended up fourth at this level for a second consecutive season with influential Jaime de Bonilla standing out and being picked as the tournament’s best defender.

Romania finished without a point and will need to regroup in Division II Group B next season. Croatia on the other hand will now get their credentials severely tested at the 2024 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship Division I Group B. They return to a level they most recently skated at in 2013. There they will play the likes of Slovenia, Ukraine, Italy, Poland and Estonia in a year.

“Four to five players will change for next year. We have won gold here in Lithuania with the junior national team and in Qatar our football national team won bronze at the World Cup, so for now we will just celebrate,” said Croatia head coach Sertic.

Japan claims WM20IB gold

Japan national junior Team

The Japanese players celebrate after receiving their gold medals and trophy at the 2023 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship Division I Group B.

By Andy Potts –

Japan’s juniors are back in the second tier of international competition after taking gold in the 2023 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship Division I Group B in Bytom, Poland. A final-day win over Ukraine saw the team jump into top spot and secure its place in next season’s Division IA competition.

Now the Japanese are just one promotion away from the elite for the first time since 2010/11. That was the last season before the Division I was split into A and B groups.

Ukraine suffered its first loss of the competition in that game despite a four-point game from forward Mykyta Sydorenko and had to be content with silver. Italy took bronze, despite a surprise loss to Estonia on the last day.

Gold medal decider

Going into Saturday’s deciding game, Ukraine had the advantage. Olexander Bobkin’s team won each of its four games with a 19-5 goal difference. Japan, meanwhile, dropped an overtime verdict against Italy and knew that only victory in regulation would be good enough for gold.

And the Japanese flew out of the blocks in the first period, swarming around the Ukrainian net from the opening faceoff. The game was barely a minute old when Savva Serdiuk was forced to make a big stop to deny Fuji Suzuki’s backhand effort after Shiryu Koiwa sliced through the defence.

Japan’s head coach, Perry Pearn, wanted his players to make the most of their mobility and they certainly did so.

“We’re not a big team but our speed and quickness is really noticeable,” Pearn said. “We’re much better skaters overall than most of the teams in this tournament. That has to be our strength and what we have to rely on.

“The flip side of it is that we are not so big as some of the teams – Ukraine would be a good example – so we have to be really smart in terms of winning battles by playing a different way than probably a team like Ukraine is able to play.”

Ukraine’s physical strength played a part in the opening goal, with Sydorenko holding off the attentions of Ichiro Takahashi before his reverse pass set up Illia Dubsky. However, that 10th-minute marker was against the run of play and Japan was soon level thanks to Rukia Morita.

Much of Japan’s success was down to the work of the coaching staff in the buildup to the game, according to Ukraine’s forward Olexi Dakhnovskyi.

“They were the best team because they were so prepared for us,” he said after the game. “They were the most disciplined team we faced. They were ready and it was like they knew what we were going to do on every centimetre of the rink.”

In the second period, Japan converted that preparation into a commanding lead. During a passage of four-on-four play, that extra mobility paid off when Junya Owa released Suzuki to make it 2-1. Another 68 seconds went by and Yutaka Toko made it 3-1, chasing Serdiuk from the net. Ukraine’s incoming goalie Hlib Artsatbanov lasted less than four minutes before allowing a goal from Kotaro Murase, and Taisetsu Ushio made it 5-1 before the second intermission.

Ukraine’s golden dream was almost over, but the impressive Sydorenko battled hard to keep his team in contention. The 18-year-old from Donetsk missed the previous game against Korea due to injury but demonstrated a full recovery. He scored a hat-trick in the third period, but it was not enough to salvage the game. A flurry of penalties brough two quick power play goals for the Japanese as the game finished
at 7-4.

For head coach Bobkin, the disappointment of missing out on promotion was tempered by the enthusiasm his young players showed for representing their country. Ukraine’s young players are dispersed throughout the world, with only two currently based in their homeland. But that did not prevent them from answering the call.

“The most important thing is that it was not hard to get everybody to our team, to our training camp,” Bobkin said. “Everybody on the team understands the importance of playing at the World Championship, especially at this hard time for our country. They are really proud to represent us at the tournament.”

Japan’s juniors on the rise

For Japan, gold here represents another step up the junior hockey ladder. The team won promotion to this level in 2020 and is moving up again at the second attempt (the 2021 tournament was cancelled during the pandemic). Head coach Pearn believes that Japan’s youngsters can acquit themselves well at a higher level.

“Before this tournament we played Hungary, who are in Division IA,” he said. “We won one game 4-3 and lost the other 3-5 so I think the top teams in this group are going to be very competitive with the teams in the next group as well. I think it speaks volumes for junior hockey, that this is strong in many countries.”

Last day heartache for Korea

That strength resulted in a competitive tournament, with most games in the balance until the closing moments. Poland bucked the trend on the final day, thrashing Korea 11-2 to finish its tournament in style. That result was vital for the host, which needed the victory to escape relegation. It also proved costly for the Koreans, who dropped into sixth place after Estonia edged Italy 2-1 to secure its survival at this level. Despite that loss, Italy still had enough to claim bronze behind Japan and Ukraine.

Victory in Bytom is the first success for veteran coach Pearn following his move to Japan. The 71-year-old will remain active in the Far East as he looks to mastermind a promotion push for the men’s team, which also competes in Division IB. Pearn brings a wealth of experience to the role: two decades of experience as a bench coach in the NHL, plus taking charge of Team Canada at the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship.

The tournament directorate nominated Italy’s Damian Clara as the top goalkeeper. He played every minute for his country, stopping 91.67% of shots for a GAA of 2.58. Japan’s Junya Owa, whose three helpers against Ukraine saw him finish the competition with 6 (1+5) points, was named best defender. Danylo Korzhyletsky of Ukraine was selected as the best forward. Poland’s Krzysztof Macias led the competition in scoring with 10 (7+3) points. Kotaro Murase of Japan also had 10 (2+8) from his five games.

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