Category: World Junior Championships (Page 1 of 14)

Chinese juniors make winning return

The Chinese players celebrate after receiving the gold medals and trophy at the 2023 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship Division II Group A.

By Andy Potts – IIHF.com

China’s U20s national team returned to the ice after a two-year absence – and duly secured gold for the first time since 2019. Next year the team could play at its highest level since relegation to Division III in 2011.

The People’s Republic arrived in Reykjavik, Iceland, for this Division IIB tournament as something of an unknown quantity. The competition was cancelled in 2021 due to the pandemic and the Chinese team was unable to compete in last year’s edition as the country continued with strict travel restrictions. As a result, none of the 2023 roster had previous experience of U20 competition. However, on its return to the international stage, the team started out with a battling overtime win over Belgium and went on to defeat all opponents on its way to gold.

After that nerve-jangling start, China went from strength to strength. Game two brought a 4-0 win over Mexico, then came an 8-2 thrashing of top-seeded Serbia. Host nation Iceland could not capitalize on home advantage and the final game on Sunday ended in another 8-2 scoreline against Chinese Taipei.

Wei Ziyao, China’s ‘Mr. Versatile’ in Iceland, reflected on the tournament for the IIHF’s Weibo broadcast. “We got better and better throughout the five games,” he said. “When we first arrived, we were nervous in the first game. Through our constant discussions with each other and communication with the coach, the whole team gradually got better. We are excited about the result.”

His captain, Chen Kailin, paid tribute to his colleagues’ adaptability and willingness to learn – game to game, period to period and shift to shift. The players responded well to the input of head coach Aleksandrs Macijevskis. The 47-year-old Latvian, a much-travelled forward in a playing career that criss-crossed the Baltic, previously coached his homeland’s women’s national team and won a Latvian championship with Kurbads in 2018.

Wei was a great example of that. After arriving in Iceland expecting to play on the blue line, he found himself moved to the other end of the rink after a couple of games. He responded with 5 (3+2) points in the concluding games.

“I started playing defence,” Wei added. “Our coach thought we needed more power on the offensive side and changed my position to forward. I was a bit nervous at first, but then I realized that as long as I focused on my own game, it was actually a bit less difficult than I expected. If I just concentrate on my own game, I can play better and better. It’s a process.”

A Belgian battle

That opening win against eventual runner-up Belgium proved decisive for the entire tournament. It was the only game the Belgians lost, and they came within five minutes of winning it in regulation. The European team led three times in the game. A second-minute tally from Lowie Verys, assisted by his brother Tijs, was cancelled out by China’s captain Kailin Chen in the first period. The second session saw Tobi Gentry and Tenghe Huang exchange markers, then Huang turned provider in the third as Rong Luan replied to Enrique de Meyere’s effort.

China got its tying goal on 55:00, having previously survived a three-on-five penalty kill with the score at 2-3. Overtime saw the Chinese produce some of their best hockey of the game, and Zhiyi Lyu potted the winner 33 seconds before the need for a shoot-out.

Lyu, the game-winner in that opener, is one of a clutch of players currently based in North America. His eight points placed him among the team’s leading scorers, just behind captain Chen (who plays in the OJHL) and Li Mingshenhao, another OJHL prospect. They both had nine points.

Netminder Chen Shifeng got the directorate prize for the best goalie in the tournament. His 95.32% save ratio was the best in the competition, while his colleague Tian Boyan was second for that metric with 92.65%. Those figures also speak to the solid defence that guided China through the competition.

Chen Kailin talked up the value of his previous tournament with China, a pre-Covid U18 championship in 2019. “Everyone was a bit nervous in the first two games,” he added. “There were players who were playing at a World Championship for the first time. It was my second time playing for a junior national team and as a senior player I should lead the team, lighten up the dressing room and cheer the players up when we were behind. The result is good. I feel very happy.”

Silver for Belgium, another bronze for Serbia

With China unbeaten, the battle for silver and bronze was settled on the final day when Serbia faced Belgium. The Serbs, who finished third on home ice last season, peppered Belgian goalie Stijn Raeymaekers with 56 shots, but only managed three goals. At the other end, Lowie Vreys produced a 5-point game to lead the Red Devils to a 6-3 win. His contribution also took the defender to the top of the tournament scoring charts, beating his brother Tijs. Lowie was named best D-man for the competition, with Serbia’s Matija Dinic named best forward after finishing with 11 (4+7) points to help his team to a second successive bronze.

At the other end of the standings, the relegation battle went to the final game. Mexico, promoted from Division III last season, lost its opening four games but still had a shot at salvation if it could defeat Iceland and force a three-way tie that would also involve Chinese Taipei. However, backed by the home crowd, Iceland was in no mood to jeopardize its status at this level. The home team romped to a 7-0 victory, finishing in fourth and sending the Mexicans back to the level they came from. Chinese Taipei, one of two promoted teams last season, preserved its status thanks to victory over Mexico.

Guenther’s golden goal in OT helps Canada down Czech Republic, capturing 2nd straight WJHC title

Canada’s Dylan Guenther, center, celebrates his power-play goal with teammates during the first period of the gold-medal game against the Czech Republic at the world junior hockey championship on Thursday in Halifax.

Source: The Canadian Press

Canada got the revenge it desperately craved — and is golden again at the world junior hockey championship.

Dylan Guenther scored his second goal of the night at 6:22 of overtime as the tournament hosts survived a blown 2-0 lead in the third period to defeat the Czech Republic 3-2 in the final of the world junior hockey championship Thursday in Halifax.

The Arizona Coyotes forward took a pass from Joshua Roy on a 2-on-1 to give his country its 20th title at the men’s under-20 event.

Shane Wright, on his 19th birthday, had the other goal for Canada. Thomas Milic made 24 saves.

Canada is the first team to repeat since the country won five straight gold medals between 2005 and 2009 after Connor Bedard and seven other returnees also topped the pandemic-delayed summer showcase in Edmonton.

Bedard was named tournament MVP.

Jiri Kulich and Jakub Kos replied for the Czech Republic. Tomas Suchanek stopped 35 shots.

The Czechs beat a disjointed Canada for the first time in 3,285 days when they picked up what was at the time a stunning 5-2 victory on December. 26th, and appeared in the final for the first time since their only gold-medal triumphs in 2000 and 2001.

The Czech Republic finished fourth in the summer and earned its first medal since 2005. The United States picked up a wild 8-7 overtime victory against Sweden to take bronze earlier on Thursday.

Bedard, the Canadian phenom who rewrote page after page of both tournament and national records book in Halifax, was held off the scoresheet Thursday.

It didn’t matter.

The Czechs came close inside an ear-splitting Scotiabank Centre midway through the first period when Gabriel Szturc hit the crossbar.

Unhappy with the Czech Republic’s exuberant celebrations following its Boxing Day victory, the Canadians made good on their first power play.

Guenther, one of three NHLers loaned to the national team for the tournament along with Wright and Brandt Clarke, blasted a shot bar down for his sixth of the tournament at 12:41 before the familiar strains of “Heave Away” by The Fables rang around the rink washed in red and white.

Milic, who made 43 saves in a 6-2 semifinal victory over the Americans, was excellent again as the period wore on with stops on Kulich and Martin Rysavy.

Caedan Bankier nearly made it 2-0 for Canada early in the second on a short-handed breakaway, but the goal was waved off for goalie interference after he crashed into Suchanek.

The Czech netminder then made big stops on Zack Ostapchuk and Logan Stankoven on separate one-on-one sequences before Wright struck.

The No. 4 pick in last summer’s NHL draft, who had an up-and-down tournament until Thursday, grabbed the puck in the neutral zone and fought off a defender before stepping past two more and roofing a backhand upstairs on the shortside for his fourth at 4:35.

Wright watched every world junior final on his birthday growing up, and the crowd responded after his goal by singing “Happy Birthday” for the Canadian captain.

Brennan Othmann, who turned 20 on Thursday, nearly made it 3-0, but Suchanek made to massive pad stops on a man advantage.

Wright nearly scored on a 2-on-1 midway through the third on a chance that would have sealed it, but the Czechs finally got on the board with 7:30 seconds left in regulation when Kulich pop a rebound off the post home.

Jakub Kos then tied it to stun the Canadians and the partisan crowd just 54 seconds later after Clarke couldn’t clear the puck twice from his own zone to force the extra period.

Guenther then etched his name in world junior lore.

Projected to go No. 1 at the 2023 NHL draft, Bedard set a boatload of records in the Maritimes.

The scintillating 17-year-old from North Vancouver, B.C., Bedard owns the national record with 23 all-time points and 17 all-time goals at the world juniors.

Bedard also established a new mark for the most points by a Canadian in a single tournament with 23, owns the national record with 14 assists at one event, and registered the most points by a player aged 18 or younger.

Bedard’s 19 assists all-time are one short of the national mark held by Ryan Ellis, while he was a point shy of tying Markus Naslund and Raimo Helminen for the second-most by a player from any country at a tournament.

He’s also the first player in history to score four goals twice — doing it against Austria this summer and again in Halifax.

Canada beat Slovakia 4-3 in overtime in the quarterfinals on Bedard’s jaw-dropping solo effort before roaring back from a two-goal deficit to defeat the United States in the semis.

The Czechs walloped Switzerland in the quarters and scored late in regulation to set up a 2-1 OT victory against Sweden before falling to the pre-tournament favorite’s in the final.

Lucius completes hat trick in OT as U.S. beats Sweden for world junior bronze

The American team poses with their bronze medals following their overtime win over Sweden on Thursday at the world junior hockey championship in Halifax.

Source: The Canadian Press

Chaz Lucius completed a hat trick in overtime as the United States beat Sweden 8-7 in a wild bronze-medal game Thursday at the world junior hockey championship in Halifax.

The Winnipeg Jets prospect scored in the three-on-three sudden-death period when he flipped a backhand over Swedish goaltender Carl Lindbom.

Lindbom had stopped an initial chance from Lane Hutson, but the rebound went unclaimed until Lucius swept in and clinched a game that saw the U.S., which was coming off a 6-2 loss to Canada in a semifinal on Wednesday, give up multiple leads before finally prevailing.

“We were not really happy with losing Canada. But it is what it is and right when we got out of the locker room [Wednesday], we said, ‘You know what? We’ve have you got a medal [on the line],” U.S. captain Luke Hughes said.

“It’s really important for USA Hockey. It’s really important for us as a team. We all came together and just focused on playing 60 minutes and just leaving it all out there.”

Cutter Gauthier had two goals for the Americans, who have won a medal in six of the last eight world juniors. Logan Cooley, Ryan Ufko and Hughes also scored.

“It’s not the game we want to be in,” Lucius said. “But overall it’s a really memorable experience.”

Filip Bystedt scored twice, including a tying goal with 21 seconds remaining in regulation, and added an assist for Sweden. Oskar Pettersson, Leo Carlsson, Milton Oscarson, Liam Ohgren and Noah Ostlund had the other goals for Sweden.

It was a second heartbreaking overtime loss for the Swedes in as many days in Halifax after dropping a 2-1 semifinal decision to the Czech Republic on Wednesday.

Kaidan Mbereko picked up the win in goal for the U.S. after stopping 14 of 16 shots in the third period and overtime. He replaced Trey Augustine, who gave up five goals on 20 shots over the first 40 minutes.

Lindbom made 28 saves on 36 shots.

Cooley opened the scoring just under three minutes into the game. It was the seventh goal of the tournament for the third-overall selection by the Arizona Coyotes at the 2022 NHL draft.

A low-scoring first period gave way to a chaotic second that saw the United States build a two-goal lead three times only to come out of the period tied 5-5.

Ufko put the Americans up 2-0 with a power-play goal in the first two minutes of the period before Bystedt got Sweden on the board less than two minutes later.

Lucius, with his first of the game, restored the Americans’ two-goal lead until Sweden tied it with goals just over two minutes apart from Pettersson and Carlsson.

Once again, the Americans surged ahead on goals from Gauthier and Lucius. But the Swedes replied with another quick pair as Oscarson and Ohgren scored in the final seconds of the period.

Ostlund scored four minutes into the third to put Sweden up 6-5, but the Swedes’ only lead of the game lasted just four minutes 17 seconds. After being knocked to the ice, Hughes shovelled the puck at the net on his knees and beat a surprised Lindbom.

“We’re not losing this game,” Hughes yelled at the players on the U.S. bench while celebrating the goal.

Gauthier appeared to have won the game with a power-play goal 97 seconds from the end of regulation as he tucked the puck under a sprawling Lindbom.

The goal survived a lengthy review, much to the relief of the Americans. The U.S. had two goals disallowed in a 6-2 semifinal loss to Canada on Wednesday.

The Swedes would not go quietly. Bystedt snapped the puck past Mbereko with 21 second left as the U.S. surrendered a lead for the third time in the game.

American forward Tyler Boucher missed the game with an injury and was replaced by Noah Laba.

IIHF World Junior Championship 2023: What you need to know

2023 World Junior Championship

By Kristen Shilton – ESPN.com

The IIHF World Junior Championship has become ubiquitous — in hockey circles at least — with the Christmas holiday season. And the tournament returns this year to its usual place of honor.

That’s after the 2022 championship was shuttered in December 2021 amid a spike of COVID-19 cases within the Edmonton “bubble,” which was serving as the tournament’s venue. The event was ultimately restaged there in August, with Team Canada beating Team Finland 3-2 in overtime to claim gold.

So, if you’re feeling some déjà vu — “wait, didn’t they just crown a World Junior champion?” — you’re not wrong; Canada hasn’t had long to lord its victory over others. Them’s the breaks.

Because Canada — along with nine other nations — is back to battling for another WJC top prize. Pre-tournament action was underway earlier this week and gives way to preliminary round games starting Monday.

The 10 participating teams exist in two groups at two different locations: Group A features Canada, Sweden, Czechia, Germany and Austria playing at Scotiabank Center in Halifax, Nova Scotia, while Group B has the United States, Finland, Switzerland, Slovakia and Latvia at Avenir Center in Moncton, New Brunswick.

Organizers didn’t intend for Canadian cities to host the tournament again so soon after Edmonton’s back-to-back turn. In 2018, the IIHF announced Novosibirsk, Russia (for Group A), and Omsk, Russia (for Group B), would share duties for 2023. But those plans changed in February because of the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, which the IIHF condemned by not only stripping Russia of its hosting rights but suspending teams from Russia and Belarus from international hockey indefinitely.

And so, the World Juniors return to Canada for a third consecutive year. Once the playing field has been whittled down in separate locations, the top four teams from each group move onto the quarterfinals, starting Jan. 2. The semifinals follow on Jan. 4, and the bronze and gold medal games pop up on Jan. 5. The bottom-ranked teams from each group will play a best-of-three series in relegation.

Before all that fun begins, let’s go over major storylines to monitor and highlight key players to keep an eye on. If history has taught us anything, there’s always something unexpected ahead when the game’s best young talent squares off.

Can Adam Fantilli outshine Connor Bedard?

There are no guarantees when it comes to the NHL draft rankings and results. Just ask Shane Wright.

This time last year, there was zero question — or so it seemed — that Wright would be the No. 1 overall pick in July. Instead, Montreal went way off script by selecting Juraj Slafkovsky in the top spot and Wright fell to Seattle at No. 4.

Now, it’s Canada’s Connor Bedard who’s on track to be taken first in June. His teammate Adam Fantilli would like to be the Slafkovsky-like spoiler.

But it won’t be easy.

Bedard has an impeccable résumé. In 2020, he became just the seventh player (after the likes of Connor McDavidJohn Tavares and Aaron Ekblad) to be granted “exceptional status” by Hockey Canada to appear in the Western Hockey League at just 15 years old. The pandemic interrupted Bedard’s debut campaign with the WHL’s Regina Pats, but the center finished 2021-22 with 100 points in 62 games. He leads the WHL this season with 64 points in 28 games.

Bedard, 17, is more than just a scoring threat, though. The North Vancouver, British Columbia, native is also an enviable playmaker and silky skater, possessing an incomparably wicked shot and mind for the game that moves so quick, he’s constantly one step ahead on the ice. He could be the total package.

Fantilli forged a different path than Bedard through his junior career. The Toronto-area product spent two seasons with the USHL’s Chicago Steel from 2020 to 2022, where he produced 110 points in 103 games. Fantilli graduated from there to the University of Michigan, and is midway through a successful freshman campaign (26 points in 16 games).

So, where might Fantilli have an edge over Bedard? In size, for one. The 18-year-old comes in at 6-foot-2 to Bedard’s 5-foot-10. Fantilli has potential as a power forward who’s tenacious on the forecheck and can outduel opponents in front of the net. He’s fast and skilled and could be an eventual No. 1 center for an NHL team.

Scouts will see Fantilli and Bedard sharing a sheet for the next few weeks. It’s an opportunity for both players to showcase the best they have to offer. Could one tournament make or break a franchise-altering decision? Likely not. But Team Canada’s stars will draw a spotlight regardless. What they do with that attention? We’ll be watching to find out.

Can Team USA get back on top?

Team USA entered the 2022 tournament as reigning gold medal winners following a triumph over Canada the previous winter. They wound up leaving Edmonton (Part II) with a disappointing fifth-place finish. Two years ago, the USA came in sixth.

Overall, the Americans have enjoyed ample success at past World Juniors though, capturing four gold, one silver and three bronze medals since 2010. And they’ve already gone 2-0 in pre-tournament action to date.

If Team USA wants to add more hardware, it will need continued performances from its veteran skaters.

Enter Luke Hughes.

Team USA’s captain and defensive scoring leader had six points in five games at the 2022 WJC and has put together a nice season so far at Michigan (18 points in 20 games). The 19-year-old — brother to NHLers Jack Hughes and Quinn Hughes — will be looked to for leadership on and off the ice, to anchor the American blue line and to bolster special team units. Hughes is a terrific skater who was impressive in pre-tournament action scoring a game-opening goal for the U.S. He’ll likely be at the forefront of any American success to come.

Then there’s the forward group, headed by Logan Cooley and Jimmy Snuggerud. Cooley was just drafted third overall by Arizona in July and wields a sharp two-way game and blistering wrist shot. Getting some experience during his freshman season at the University of Minnesota (25 points in 19 games) should only have helped Cooley mature and make him reliable and dangerous in every situation.

Snuggerud is Cooley’s teammate at Minnesota (second in NCAA scoring, with 27 points in 20 games thus far). While this is his WJC debut, Snuggerud appears unfazed by a big stage. He was strong in the early games, boasting a size (6-foot-2) and skill that can complement anyone he’s playing with.

Cutter Gauthier — already on Team USA’s top line with Cooley and Snuggerud — is another player to watch. Ditto for Sean Behrens on the back end and Kenny Connors in the bottom six rotation. What should set Team USA apart is its depth. On paper — and by the looks of those two games in the books — there’s potential for this to be a multifaceted foe any opponent would fear.

If the Americans can avoid hurting themselves via unforced errors and careless penalties, and there’s solid goaltending ahead from Kaidan Mbereko, especially, Team USA has to like its chances of being in the top-three mix again in January.

Can a certain Swede raise his stock?

You know Bedard. And Fantilli. And how they are likely to be the top two prospects in this year’s draft (as of now).

Now say hello to Leo Carlsson.

The Swedish forward is a projected top-five choice in 2023 who could push his way up a few draft boards with a successful World Juniors showing. What could that look like for the 17-year-old? It starts from the foundation he’s already built.

Carlsson’s been honing his skills the past two years with Orebro HK of the Swedish Hockey League, facing high-end competition that’s helped rapidly mature his game. The center has consistently produced points this season — 14 in 25 tilts to date — but Carlsson’s impact goes beyond scoring goals. He’s a play-driving forward, is good in transition and gets to the net and creates for linemates. An October video of Carlsson deftly stickhandling through a crowd quickly turned heads and showcased what sets him apart from other skaters his age.

Another defining Carlsson quality is his preternatural calm that leads to confidence. The teenager appears unaffected by added pressure, which bodes well for Carlsson’s potential to pierce the NHL ranks sooner than later once he is drafted.

Sweden took home bronze at last season’s WJC and earned five other medals — including one gold and three silver — since 2012. It is a motivated bunch again this year, and it’s the ultimate opportunity for Carlsson to make his case as a top-three selection come June.

It’s worth noting that another player gunning for similar consideration won’t be on display the next couple weeks — at least not in this tournament. Matvei Michkov would be highlighting a roster for Team Russia if there was one. Some have already anointed the 18-year-old forward a future face of Russian hockey. But instead of representing his country right now in Canada, Michkov has inked a deal to suit up for SKA St. Petersburg in the KHL through 2025-26.

Michkov’s draft potential is complicated. Given the talent and high hockey IQ Michkov flaunts, NHL clubs will still be interested in securing his rights for down the line — Kirill Kaprizov was drafted in 2015, but didn’t make his NHL debut until the 2020-21 season. But will Michkov come off the board before or after Carlsson? And if the Swedish standout does enough at World Juniors, can he gain the inside track on Michkov? Oh, the drama.

Can an underdog contender emerge?

Now, “underdog” is a relative term here, used mostly to describe “not Canada or the United States.”

We already know those North American squads are expected to excel and are routinely considered the ones to beat. So, who might be up to the task?

Finland

Only Canada, the U.S. and Finland have won gold at the past 10 World Juniors. And Finland was one overtime marker away from topping Canada on the podium in August. Months later, Finland is primed to make another strong push in the tournament.

Finland’s team philosophy works from the defense out, so Aleksi Heimosalmi and Otto Salin should be setting a tone on the blue line that extends everywhere else. Even though skaters like Joakim Kemell and Niko Huuhtanen can score (and the Finns are hopeful Brad Lambert starts showing up on the scoresheet, too), defense is Finland’s first priority. If it can stick to its script, Finland has a good chance of getting a medal.

Czechia

The plucky group finished fourth in last season’s tournament, a wild ride that included losing to Latvia and then eliminating the undefeated Americans. It was Tomas Suchanek’s incredible performance in net that delivered the latter outcome, and Suchanek has returned to backstop Czechia. He might not be an elite netminder, but Suchanek works hard and plays behind a defense led by David Jiricek. The Columbus Blue Jacketsprospect has had a terrific season in the AHL, averaging a point per game and is supported by Tomas Hamara and Stanislav Svozil.

Up front, it’s Buffalo Sabresprospect Jiri Kulich — who has 16 points in 24 AHL games this season — and New York Rangersselection Jaroslav Chmelar — a standout freshman at Providence College — challenging opponents. All in all, Czechia’s got real potential to surprise.

Sweden

Recently, Sweden has failed to turn excellent preliminary round performances into gold-medal game appearances; it hasn’t been to that stage since 2018. The Swedes’ mission to return starts with the previously mentioned Carlsson and extends to several key players showing up.

Goaltender Carl Lindblom takes over for Jesper Wallstedt, and there’s high hopes for what the Golden Knights’ prospect can bring given the great season he’s having in the Swedish professional league, HockeyAllsvenskan. Sweden’s biggest weakness might be its lack of top-tier defensemen, so the forward group will be relied on even more to drive Sweden’s success. It has Carlsson there, along with Filip Bystedt (a first-round choice by San Jose in 2022) and Fabian Lysell (a 2021 first-round choice by Boston).

The question mark is Vancouver prospect Jonathan Lekkerimäki, who hasn’t produced a point in the SHL since November, but has game-changing potential when he’s going. He’ll have something to prove at this tournament and that could be a huge boost for Sweden.

Can Austria sidestep relegation?

What is relegation? Glad you asked!

At the end of the WJC’s round-robin, the two last-placed teams will play a best-of-three series. Whichever team wins will be allowed back at next year’s tournament; the loser is relegated to Division 1 Group A.

How does Austria avoid this fate? Another good question!

Austria has injected some fun into the WJC since reaching top-tier status in 2021. That hasn’t resulted in further success. The IIHF removed relegation the past two seasons, so Austria didn’t have to worry about slipping back there (and given Austria was 0-4 and outscored 28-1 in no-relegation 2020, it truly dodged a bullet). But there’s no such luck this time around.

Unfortunately, Austria won’t have its biggest name in Marco Kasper. The Detroit Red Wings prospect opted to continue working on his game with the SHL’s Rogle BK. Bummer for Austria. Also not around is goaltender Sebastian Wraneschitz, who made 119 saves in two games during the 2021 tournament that might have actually resulted in a win if he’d gotten any goal support.

There’s still hope for Austria, though. Forward Vinzenz Rohrer has been lighting up the OHL with 32 points in 26 games for the Ottawa 67’s, and 2023 draft-eligible Ian Scherzer can build off a strong showing in last summer’s tournament with another two-way performance here. On the back end, keep your eyes peeled for David Reinbacher. He had two assists through four games at the last WJC, and has collected 14 points in 28 games with the Swiss league’s Kloten HC this season. A dual threat like Reinbacher immediately improves his country’s odds.

It’ll be tough, though. Austria has Sweden, Czechia and Canada to face. It’s Austria’s final game against Germany that could tell the tale. If Austria hasn’t earned any points and neither has Germany, there’s a chance Austria doesn’t slide into a relegation matchup that likely pits it against Latvia. Stars will need to align for Austria, but otherworldly showings from Scherzer, Reinbacher and Rohrer could help get them there.

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 – IIHF.com

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 – IIHF.com

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.

Norwegian juniors join elite nations

Norway juniors join elite nations

The Norwegian team celebrates with the trophy after beating Kazakhstan in the deciding game for gold at the 2023 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship Division I Group A.

By Chapin Landvogt – IIHF.com

Is there anything sweeter than convincingly winning a world championship on home ice?

The Norwegian Ice Hockey Association would likely respond to that question in the negative, as their U20 national team just gained promotion by going a perfect 5-0 on home ice in the Oslo suburb of Asker.

“It feels great,” explained Norway head coach Anders Gjose. “It’s a big step in our developmental plan to reach the top division and get to play against the best opponents in the world. That’s the best showcase window for our players.”

The IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship Division I Group A featured all the excitement anyone could wish for in a tournament. Entering the final day of play, all three games had implications on who would gain promotion and who would be relegated. About the only thing that was certain heading into the final games was that France could neither finish first nor last, an achievement in and of itself.

More importantly, host Norway entered the final game of the tournament with a perfect record and solely needed one point to gain uncontested promotion back to the top-level IIHF World Junior Championship next winter not far from home in Gothenburg, Sweden. The 4-0 win over Slovenia and 4-1 victory over Scandinavian rival Denmark were somewhat convincing, but in between, Norway needed tight 3-2 victories over France and Hungary to claim first place heading into the final game.

Their opponent in this final game would be Kazakhstan, which had to win in regulation time to gain promotion. The Kazakhs had lost their first game 2-0 to France and were even down 2-0 to Hungary after two periods, but then charged back to not only defeat Hungary, but win its next two against Denmark (4-0) and Slovenia (4-2). It was clear they were going to have to play their best game of the event to date in order to knock Norway down from first place.

With promotion on the line, both teams entered into play a bit cautious and very alert, setting up what could best be described as a chess match of sorts. After surviving a shorthanded situation right in the first six minutes of play, Norway broke the ice on a goal by Petter Vesterheim in the 15th minute of play to get things rolling. For Vesterheim, it was his second goal and fifth point of the tournament. That would be the only goal of the first period.

The second period painted a much different picture. Norway struck early on a power play goal by Gabriel Koch. Eight minutes later, the team went up 3-0 on another power play goal, this time by Leo Halmrast. With things looking like the game could turn into a blowout, the Kazakhs struck back less than a minute later on a tally by Aldiyar Nurlan, who profited from a nifty pass from the high slot by Roman Yermak, finally beating goaltender Markus Rohnebak Stensrud for the first time.

The scoring continued when a Kazak defender overplayed the puck in his own zone as the last man, then helplessly watching as Michael Nygard picked it up and moved in on a breakaway that concluded with him adeptly deking out goalkeeper Roman Shefer. But just 30 seconds later in the 37th minute of play, Daniil Tsybin completed a successful wrap-around to cut Norway’s lead back to two, a score that would stand until the end of the second period.

The third period saw a return to the chess match. Kazakhstan invested more in puck control and entering the zone while Norway solidly shut things down and placed an emphasis on delimiting opposition opportunities. This went on continually until a heavy and high wrist shot from the blueline by defenseman Isak Hansen gave Norway a 5-2 lead and served as a very rewarding breath of fresh air.

Kazakhstan continued to mount pressure and struck to make it just 5-3 with a power play goal by Roman Yermak in the 56th minute of play. Shortly thereafter, Kazakhstan pulled its goalie and play took place primarily in Norway’s zone for the final two minutes of play. Once the final buzzers rang, the players hit the ice to charge their goalie, knocking the goal off its moors in the process.

Norway had gone 5-0 in tournament play on home ice to gain promotion.

“What our boys did here at home, going 5-0, is really impressive. The players had to overcome the mental pressure of home ice and a building full of plenty of scouts! It was a solid performance by the team,” said Gjose.

As proud as the players can be, part of this squad will not taste the fruits of this year’s labours, aging out of this age group while creating new opportunities for those to come.

“It feels fantastic. We’ve a great group of players,” stated elated captain Sole Marius Ryen. “We’ve worked hard throughout the whole season to this point, so it’s well-deserved. I hope next year’s group will be able to keep it up.”

Third-place finish for France

A week of furious action included more than enough results to raise the well-informed hockey fan’s eyebrow. Third place France looked like it was going to really make things interesting after its 2-0 win over Kazakhstan, close 3-2 loss to Norway, and ensuing 5-2 victory over Slovenia. Alas, the team blew a 4-2 third period lead to Hungary in Game 4 and ultimately lost 5-4 in a shootout that required 24 penalty shots. Their tournament concluded with a 4-3 regulation loss to Denmark, a game in which they trailed by one goal every step of the way, only to tie things late in the third period and see Denmark score the game-winner 30 seconds later, less than five minutes before the game ended.

Relegation scare on final gameday

Hungary definitely showed the hockey world that it belongs in this group and may be contending for promotion in the very near future. After taking Denmark to overtime in a 3-2 loss, the Hungarians gave Kazakhstan a real scare in dropping a 2-0 lead to lose 3-2, a result that mirrored the one they achieved against host Norway as well. The OT victory against France described above was the turning point for the Magyars, but Hungary entered the final day of play still within earshot of relegation.

Their opponent would be Slovenia, a team thought to be able to make some music at this tournament but save for a 6-1 deconstruction of Denmark in their second game of tourney play, the Slovenes had come up short in regulation time against all other competition. With Hungary gaining momentum, the contest was bound to be a big one for the geographical neighbours, but neither was 100% in charge of its own fate. They simply knew they had to win, and it better be in regulation time.

The reason for that conundrum was that last place Denmark still had a game against France and two points in hand. That meant that a regulation win for the Danes would shoot them past whoever lost the Hungary versus Slovenia match-up.

With that, pure intrigue was in store for all three of the final games.

And Hungary versus Slovenia turned into a barnburner. Despite a 3-1 lead at the start of the second period for Slovenia, Hungary eventually charged back to take a 5-3 lead. Slovenia kept coming back to make it 5-4 and later 6-5, but the Hungarians put the icing on the cake of a 7-5 victory with an empty-net goal in the 60th minute of play to maintain the class.

Slovenia then watched dreadfully as Denmark and France played the expected tight-knit match. Denmark had 1-0, 2-1, and 3-2 leads, but saw France tie things up again in the 55th minute of play. Then, as if a sign from the universe, Victor Sand netted the 4-3 game-winner in the 56th minute of play to ultimately send Denmark skipping over Slovenia in the standings and avoid relegation in what was truly a do-or-die game.

With that, the fate of the Slovenes was sealed.

“We prepared really well for this tournament. Then we lost a few guys before the tournament. We had logistical issues,” shared Slovenian head coach Lovro Bajc. “Sure, we’re sad about the outcome. We’re disappointed, but the young guys we have in this team will learn. We’re coming from a small country. Our players will have to learn from this, gain experience, and take it with them moving forward.”

For the Danish ice hockey program, retaining the class was of the utmost importance, even if the circumstances surrounding the achievement surely didn’t help anyone’s blood pressure.

“I feel great. I feel great for the boys too,” stated clearly relieved coach Jens Nielsen. “We didn’t play the greatest tournament, but we kept believing that we could win some games and get some points. And we did it. I’m really very proud of these young men. They played a really good hockey game, especially over the last 20 minutes, when we needed it most.”

“We showed we wanted it more. We had to do it. We had to compete for the logo on our chests. And that’s what we did in order to have a chance next year too,” explained captain Jonas Christensen, who couldn’t emphasize enough the importance of maintaining the class, “This was a very, very important game for our team. It was my last year of play at this level, and we had a very young team here in Norway. So, it was important to achieve this, build on this experience and move forward with the young players and the future of Danish ice hockey.”

The coach reinforced this sentiment, “We had a young team playing at this tournament and we knew we had to get more physical and stronger. We see that we have to practice harder back in Denmark, every day, and when it comes to the national team. We have some really good guys coming up and I think we have a good future ahead. I think we’re going to have to be reckoned with soon when it comes to going up to the A group.”

Tops in the tournament

Named to top Goalkeeper in the tournament was Norway’s Markus Rohnebak Stensrud, who had five victories, a 92.8 save percentage, and an impressive 1.60 goals against average.

Named to top defenseman in the tournament was Hungary’s Zeteny Hadobas, who finished 1st overall in scoring with one goal and 11 points while going +2.

Named to top forward in the tournament was France’s Matias Bachelet, who led his team in scoring with two goals and seven points, finishing tied for third overall in tournament scoring with Norway’s Vesterheim.

U20 Finns perfect in 5-team event

Finnish U20 national team wins five nations

Jani Nyman was among the top players of the Finnish U20 national team.

By Derek O’Brien – IIHF.com

In the last tune-up tournament for three of Europe’s top under-20 national teams ahead of the 2023 IIHF Ice Hockey World Junior Championship, Finland’s U20 side went unbeaten in a five-team tournament in the Ostrava suburb of Poruba, Czechia. In three games, the Finns outscored the Swedish U20 team and a pair of Czech junior national teams 18-3. The Finns secured first place with a 4-0 win over Czechia U20 in the last game. 

Finnish right winger Jani Nyman recorded two goals and an assist in the last game to finish with a tournament-leading seven points. The 18-year-old from Ilves Tampere was a second-round pick of the NHL’s Seattle Kraken this past summer. One point behind him was Swedish centre Filip Bystedt, a first-round pick of the San Jose Sharks and current member of Linkoping HC, had a goal and five assists. Swedes Leo Carlsson and Oskar Pettersson and Finn Ville Koivunen had five points each, while the top-scoring defender was Finland’s Topias Vilen with three points. 

Among goalies, Sweden’s Ian Blomquist and Finland’s Aku Koskenvuo each won both of their starts, while Finn Jani Lampinen earned the tournament’s only shutout in the final game. 

Finland’s roster included five players who were part of the silver-medal squad at last summer’s World Junior Championship in Edmonton, including 2004-born Joakim Kemell, who went 17th overall to the Nashville Predators this past summer. Also on the team was 16-year-old defender Aron Kiviharju of TPS Turku.  

The Swedes also finished with nine points but played one more game, losing 6-1 in the head-to-head game with Finland U20 on Saturday thanks to a Kalle Vaisanen hat trick. The tournament didn’t schedule the two Czech teams or two Finnish teams against each other. 

The Swedish roster included nine members of the U18 team that won gold this past April in Germany and four first-round picks from last year’s NHL Entry Draft – Bystedt and the Djurgarden Stockholm trio of Jonathan Lekkerimaki, Noah Ostlund and Liam Ohgren.

Czechia U20 opened with a narrow 4-3 loss to Sweden and eventually finished third with three points. Eduard Sale – a highly-rated prospect for the 2023 Draft – and Jakub Kos had three points each. The Czechs, who took a very young team to the last World Juniors but have several eligible players in North America, only brought seven of a whopping 19 potential returnees to this tournament on home ice. That includes 2004-born defender Frantisek Nemec, who suited up for the Czech U19 team. 

In the matchup between the tournament’s two U19 squads, Finland edged Czechia 3-2 in a shootout. 

Elsewhere, on home ice in the alpine town of Monthey, Switzerland won a very evenly-matched four-team tournament. After opening with a 3-2 loss to Slovakia, the Swiss edged Norway 6-4 and Germany 1-0. In the last game, goalkeepers Mathieu Croce of Switerland and Mathias Bittner of Germany were perfect for 45 minutes but, needing a regulation win to secure top spot, Switzerland’s Terraneo Simone scored the game’s only goal with 14:48 to play. 

Also on the last day of play, Norway secured second place with a 4-3 overtime victory over Slovakia. The Slovaks had battled back from a 3-1 deficit to tie the score in the third period but Kasper Magnusen, with his third goal of the game, scored the overtime winner on a pass from rated prospect Martin Johnsen, his third assist of the game. 

Johnsen and Switzerland’s Joel Henry led the tournament with four points each. 

In St. Polten, Austria, Denmark secured top spot by winning its first two games against Hungary and host Austria. The Danes then dropped a 3-2 decision to the Latvian U18 team in their last game with first place already sewn up. It was the first win for the young Latvian squad, who got a big 40-save performance from goaltender Aksels Ozols. 

There was more drama in Saturday’s other game, in which Hungary took second place with a 4-3 win over Austria on an overtime goal by Andras Mihalik. 

Also, the Slovenian national junior team won a tournament on home ice in Jesenice that also included France, Hungary and Italy. At the same time, Estonia triumphed in Kaunas, Lithuania in a tournament that also included Poland, Romania and the host Lithuanians.

Croatian juniors win in Belgrade

The Croatian players celebrate with the gold medal trophy after winning the 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship Division II Group B in Serbia.

By Henrik Manninen – IIHF.com

Croatia sweeps through the 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship Division II Group B in to win gold. The Netherlands also celebrates after blanking hosts Serbia 4-0 on the final day to claim the second promotion spot.

The tournament in Belgrade was the last of the tournaments played in summertime after being moved from January due to Covid-19.

Advancing in emphatic style, Croatia took maximum points and sealed promotion ahead of Saturday´s concluding 4-2 win versus Belgium. Played in the newly refurbished Pionir Ice Hall in Belgrade, the triumph tasted even sweeter for Croatia, winning it at the home ice of their fierce rivals, Serbia.

Coming from behind to beat Serbia 3-1 in a high-octane opening day encounter set the tone for the Croats. They followed it up by grinding out a 4-2 win against the Netherlands. Against Iceland, they sparked into life scoring four unanswered third-period goals in a 7-3 victory. Four wins out of four in a highly competitive tournament bodes well for Croatia’s promising next generation.

“All of the games were tough, but this is a very good team that works hard. With seven players on this team playing their hockey outside of Croatia the future looks good,” said head coach Marko Sertic as  Croatia’s U20 national team steps up to a level they most recently competed at in 2017.

“We are all very good friends and working very hard as a group. That I think is the key for our win and I think this team will have a good chance of winning a medal at the higher level,” said Croatia’s Alex Dimitrijevic, one of six players on the victorious Croatian U20 roster who also skated for Croatia’s senior team winning bronze at the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division II Group A.

The key win for Croatia en route to their gold medals came in their tricky opener against arch-rivals and hosts Serbia. The Pionir Ice Hall erupted in a rousing cheer following Matija Dinic´s opener for Serbia at 4:01. But the joy was to be short-lived as Fran Zavrski tied the game for Croatia just 32 seconds later. Working themselves into the game, Serbia´s Minja Ivanovic sat out a two-minute minor when Karlo Marinkovic found the tournament´s top scorer, Vito Idzan, who converted at 6:18 on the power play as Croatia went ahead 2-1.

With emotions running high both on and off ice, the penalty-laden second frame finished goalless. 967 onlookers in the stands were backing Serbia relentlessly in their hunt for goals as the third period wore on. When Croatia’s Bruno Idzan was serving a minor and Serbia charged ahead, his older brother came to the rescue. The tournament’s top scorer Vito Idzan raced clear to cooly slot home the 3-1 shorthanded goal past Akim Padalica with 5:05 left in regulation time.

“We knew that there were going to be a lot of people and Serbia would be favourites playing at home. It was hard, but it was expected. We knew what we were coming for when arriving here,” said Dimitrijevic.

The original six teams skating in Belgrade had been cut down to five following China’s withdrawal due to their current Covid-19 countermeasures and quarantine rules. The suspension from participation at the top of the World Championship pyramid of the Russian and Belarusian U20 national teams until further notice also directly impacted this tournament. With two places for promotion up for grabs and nobody suffering relegation, it gave way to a week full of offensive and adventurous hockey.

Heading into the final game of the tournament, the Netherlands went head to head with Serbia for the second promotion spot. Entering the game with a two-point advantage over their opponents, the Dutch head coach Ron Berteling and his young team were relishing the challenge ahead of them.

“It’s a Saturday night game at eight o’clock against the hosts. When you hit the ice during the warm-up there are already people in the stands. If you are not ready then something is wrong, but these guys will be ready,” he said.

Berteling was not to be disappointed. The Netherlands had gone behind in all of their previous three games, but against Serbia they were switched on right from the start.

Following a goalless first frame, the Dutch broke the deadlock to go ahead on the power play at 8:22 of the middle frame thanks to their top scorer Jay Huisman. He then turned provider three minutes later as Mike Collard doubled the Dutchmen’s lead.

Despite Serbia winning the shots 28-20 in the game, the crowd of 826 was silenced at 2:11 of the third when Rolan Loos stretched the Dutch lead even further. Desperate four goals, Serbia head coach Spiros Anastasiadis went for bust pulling Padalica from the net with 6:47 left of the third frame. 53 seconds later Pim van der Meulen hit the final nail in the coffin with his empty netter.

“We dreamed of winning the gold medal, but our goal was promotion and to go up to a higher group,” said Berteling as the Netherlands sealed a return to a level, they last competed at in 2018.

A dejected Serbian team had to settle for bronze. A slight consolation is that Serbia’s Padalica was voted best goalkeeper of the tournament. Wesley de Bruijn of the Netherlands won the best defender award and Croatia’s Vito Idzan was selected as the top forward.

The tournament also marked the end of the 2021/22 season in the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship program with the final remaining tournament being concluded after being pushed ahead from its original date due to Covid-19.

The 2023 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship Division II Group A will be played in Kaunas, Lithuania between 11 and 17 December 2022 with players born 2003 and later eligible to play and return. Croatia and the Netherlands will then play against Great Britain, Spain, Lithuania and Romania.

Canada claims summertime gold in OT

Team Canada players celebrate a goal in the 3-2 gold-medal game win against Finland.

By  Andrew Podnieks – IIHF.com

Kent Johnson knocked in a loose puck at 3:20 of overtime to give Canada a 3-2 win over Finland and take the gold medal at the 2022 World Junior Championship. It capped the wildest three-on-three imaginable, one that included great saves by both goalies. But the biggest save came from Canada’s captain, tournament MVP, and leading scorer, Mason McTavish, who swept a puck off his goal line to keep play alive and allow Johnson to score soon after.

Logan Stankoven toe-dragged the puck in front of the Finnish goal and was stoned by Juha Jatkola, but the puck bounced free and Johnson smacked it in, sending the raucous crowd of 13,327 into a frenzy. Finland had taken the game to overtime by rallying from 2-0 down with two goals in the third.

Yes, World Junior fans, it felt like Christmas!

Canada finished the tournament with a perfect record, seven wins without a loss, including an earlier 6-3 win over the Finns during the preliminary round. They have now won their record 19th all-time gold medals at the World Juniors. The win also marks the 15th time in 16 hostings that Canada has earned a medal, the lone exception coming in 2019. For Finland, they take silver, their fifth U20 medal since 2014.

The win is especially sweet for coach Dave Cameron, who was behind the bench in 2011 when Canada lost a 5-3 heart-breaker in the gold-medal game that year against Russia after leading 3-0 after two periods.

Dylan Garand was the winning goalie and finished the tournament with a 6-0 record. McTavish led all players in the game with 26:50 of ice time, including 1:55 of the 3:20 in the OT.

At the other end, Juha Jatkola was sensational in the Finnish goal, the only reason the game went to an extra session.

Backed by the biggest, loudest, and most raucous crowd of the tournament, Canada came out guns a-blazin’, getting the puck deep, hitting every white sweater in sight, and getting pucks on the net. All Finland could do was withstand the barrage and hope it wouldn’t last 60 minutes. Wave after wave attacked Juha Jatkola’s net, and he made some fine saves while his nervous mates tried to adjust.

But before they did, Canada took the lead thanks to McTavish. He drove around the goal and fired a quick shot. Jatkola made the save, but the puck dropped at the feet of Joshua Roy, and he smacked it in before defender Aleksi Heimosalmi could check him.

That goal came at 11:18, by which time Finland had yet to register a shot on goal. They finally did half a minute later, but soon after that, the McTavish-Roy combination almost clicked again. This time the captain fired a pass from the corner to Roy alone in front, but Jatkola made the save on the deke.

Finland skated their way into the game and got a few pucks on Dylan Garand, the most dangerous off the stick of Roni Hirvonen, but the goalie was perfectly positioned to take the shot to the midsection.

Finland had every right to feel pretty good heading to the dressing room, down a single goal in a period it was overwhelmed, but Canada reversed their opponenets’ happy feelings quickly in the middle period. Coming in on the rush, William Dufur fired a bullet past Jatkola just 41 seconds after the faceoff to make it 2-0. 

That set off a series of chances both ways. Kasper Simontaival made an expert tip of a Joel Mattaa shot, but Garand stuck out the right pad just in time for the beautiful save. Johnson then had a long breakaway but was stoned by Jatkola.

Canada then had a whopping five power plays intermittently created by their intensity and pressure in the Finland end. They had plenty of possession and some good chances, but although they didn’t add to their lead virtually the rest of the period passed in the Finland end again as a result. 

That failure to score with all those power plays became a problem early in the third when the Finns got their first goal of the night. It started when Dufour lost his stick and went off on a change, leaving Canada down a skater for a precious couple of seconds. Heimosalmi got the puck and fired a quick shot through traffic that beat Garand at 4:09 and changed the complexion of the game entirely.

The Finns nearly tied the game seconds later, but Garand made a fine stop on Sami Helenius, and then Tyson Foerster had an empty net only to shoot into Jatkola’s glove, the best save of the night by far. Finland responded with dominating play that eventually resulted in the tying goal. 

They were relentless in the Canada end, just as the hosts were in the opening period, and tied the game after more pressure induced a turnover. Topi Niemela spotted Joakim Kemell to the back side and fired a pass across, and Kemell wired a one-timer in to make it 2-2 at 10:46.

Canada acquired a sixth power play, but before much happened it incurred its first penalty of the night to negate the advantage. And then Finland got another penalty that went to video review. In the end, it all went for naught and teams headed to the dressing room for a full intermission before playing 20 minutes of three-on-three unlimited overtime.

It didn’t last long, but every second was thrilling. Junior hockey might not be a summer sport on a reguar basis, but for one night, well, it was a dream.

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