Fourty-one different nations are participating in the official IIHF U20 World Junior Championship programs, and for twenty-four of those nations, those championships are already completed. The hockey world at large (particularly North American fans) focus in on the top level in Buffalo and Niagara, NY, this holiday season (Dec. 26-Jan. 5), and the lowest level (Division 3) runs afterwards in Mexico City, but at Division 1 and 2 I think we get a real feel for the growth of the game. Future professionals come from these divisions, whether they make it all the way to the NHL as geographical oddities, or play in the KHL (particuarly the Latvian and Kazakh teams, possibly the Ukrainians), or at their respective national league levels. Here are the results of the final games, and the final standings to follow (ranked 11th-35th):
Division 1, Group A in Belarus
Latvia is heading back to the top group, winning a tightly fought finale against the home team. Shots were 26-21 for Belarus, but goaltender Janis Kalins was solid, only being beaten early in the first period when Belarus had a 5 on 3 man advantage. The top line for Latvia of Juris Upitis, Zegmus Girgensons and Ronalds Kenins led the way again, scoring the tying goal on the powerplay as well as adding the empty netter to clinch it. In a show of just how big hockey is in Belarus, the announced attendance in Bobrusik for this game was 7000. It's too bad that they can't get to the top level consistently, because that is incredible attendance for a Div. 1 tournament, and would trump a lot of previous European hosts of the top level.
Nikolai Suslo of Belarus, the tournament's leading scorer, was shut out in this game, limited to only one shot on goal. Suslo had five goals and three assists, edging out Upitis (3 goals, five assists), and Girgensons (four goals, three assists). As for Girgensons, he truly stood out: his physical play was prevelant throughout the tournament, and he made a big hit in the third period as a punctuation mark on his performance. It's going to be fun to see him at the top level in his draft year, likely joining Kristians Pelss on a top line. A true star emerging for Latvia... how fantastic.
Latvian Hockey Report has a recap of Latvia's tournament, highlighting the players that will be returning for the 2012 Championships.
Ben Bowns is my first star of this tournament. In order to win the bronze medal vs. a fairly strong Japanese team that hung tough with Belarus (lost 4-1, but were tied at 1 after 2 periods) and Lativa (lost 1-0), Bowns stopped FIFTY shots as Great Britain was thoroughly dominated in their victory. Somehow, they gave the best layer honours to Thomas Squires, who had one goal and was +1 with two shots on goal. Robert Farmer had three assists and was +3, as the shot total ended up being 51-15 for Japan. Bowns' remarkable shutout bid was stopped with 17 seconds to play, when Akira Matsuura finally beat the British goalie. The bronze medal is one of Great Britain's best results ever at the U20s, and means the Brits will compete with the second highest group next year when the formats change, the newly aligned Division 1A group. Japan will be in the third level, the 1B group.
Ukraine was thoroughly outplayed this whole tournament, as their junior program looks to be regressing significantly. Now they'll be off to the Division 2 level after being outscored 32-4 in five games. Italy, meanwhile, finishes fourth because of, well, Ben Bowns' shutout performance against them. They actually had a better goal differential than Great Britain at +5, thanks to their opening win against Japan (6-0). They'll compete at the Div. 1B level next year. A four goal second period sealed this game for Italy, who outshot Ukraine 34-18.
Final Standings: 1. Latvia (5-0) 2. Belarus (4-1) 3. Great Britain (3-2) 4. Italy (2-3) 5. Italy (1-4) 6. Ukraine (0-5)
Top players: Goaltender: Ben Bowns (GBR); Defenseman: Ralfs Freibergs (LAT); Forward: Nikolai Suslo (BLR).
Division 1, Group B in Slovenia
The battle to avoid relegation went as expected. Croatia's top line of Borna Rendulic, Mislav Blagus, and Dominik Kanaet scored against every team at this tournament, and clearly are the future of Croatian hockey. They've each already appeared on the national men's team, and are likely the top three players for the country already. Overall, they finished 5th, 9th, and 11th in tournament scoring despite playing on the fifth place team, so take note of them for the future. Rendulic is the true star: a 1992 born player who is playing junior hockey in Finland. Although, it should be noted, he is not a top junior player in the league (10 points in 21 games in the U20 league), so even he is only a starting point for the country. Lithuania, meanwhile, is relegated to Division 2, being outscored 35-10 in the tournament.
Denmark had already won the tournament after four games, so this game was of way more importance to Austria, who needed a win to guarantee a top 3 finish. However, it finally exposed the defensive and goaltending issues that Denmark suffered throughout the tournament: they never once shut out a team, at a level where blowouts and domination are par for the course. Of course, there was only one shutout in the entire tournament, so defense and goaltending wasn't terribly strong amongst the top teams. Kevin Puschnik and Konstantin Komarek led the way for Austria, who outshot Denmark in this offensive free for all 50-42. Puschnik and Komarek were 3rd and 4th in tournament scoring, while Denmark's Nicolai Meyer led the tournament with eight goals and four assists. Denmark's Markus Lauridsen led all defensemen in scoring with one goal and six assists.
A HUGE third period comeback brought the home side to a second place finish, scoring five goals to comeback from a 4-1 deficit. Eric Pance, the Slovenian captain, got a goal and an assist to finish second overall in scoring with seven goals and five assists. The shots were 44-22 for Slovenia, so the percentages started to play out in the third, where Slovenia scored five goals on twenty shots (allowing eight against). The final goal was an empty netter. Slovenia stays in Div. 1A, while Kazakhstan goes to Div. 1B where they will likely be next year's favourites.
Final Standings: 1. Denmark (12 pts), 2. Slovenia (12 pts), 3. Austria (11 pts), 4. Kazakhstan (6 pts), 5. Croatia (4 pts), 6. Lithuania (0 pts).
Top Players: Goaltender: Luka Granchar (SLO); Defenseman: Jesper Jensen (DEN); Forward: Eric Pance (SLO)
Division 2, Group A in Estonia
Iceland needed a win to avoid relegation here, but it was a big game for Spain as well, who clinched the bronze with this tight win. A first period PPG by defenseman Alejandro Hernandez held up behind a 26 save shutout from Ander Alcaine for the win. Iceland showed well at this tournament, but ultimately their opening win over Belgium wasn't enough. If Iceland is going to produce a NHL draft pick in 2012 in Bjorn Sigurdarsson (admittedly a longshot, but possible with him playing junior hockey in Sweden), no one will notice him at the U20 level at the Div. 3 level.
I said in the preview that it'd be a story if any team lost by 3 or less to France, and that held up: this was the closest game France had, and they won by five. French hockey isn't really developing, but it's still strong enough to fit in at the new Div. 1B level. That new format should help them stay there for a few years, I don't expect repeated visits between Div. 1 and 2 for them. France dominated the scoring leaders department. The Dutch still held on for a second place finish despite finishing the tournament with losses to their neighbours, Belgium and France.
Belgium's offense really woke up when their backs were against the wall, scoring five goals against the Dutch before winning in a shootout, and then eight against the host Estonians. Belgium finishes fourth as a result, Estonia barely survives by finishing fifth. Bryan Kolodziejczyk had an amazing game, with three goals and five assists, the best performance of any player at any level of these tournaments. Draft eligible forward Robert Rooba of Estonia had a goal and three assists for the losing side, meaning those two players were involved in every goal scored. Shots were 49-34 for the home team, who couldn't get a save.
Final Standings: 1. France (15 pts), 2. The Netherlands (10 pts), 3. Spain (9 pts), 4. Belgium (5 pts) 5. Estonia (3 pts) 6. Iceland (3 pts)
Top Players: Goaltender: Ander Alcaine (ESP); Defenseman: Victor Vitton Mea (FRA); Forward: Nicloas Ritz (FRA)
Division 2, Group B in Romania
South Korea didn't try and run up the score on China, only outshooting them 39-33, but typical of China's performance, the game wasn't close despite this. The win allowed South Korea to finish third, while China is off to Division 3 in 2012.
At the start of the week, it looked like Hungary would come out on top, but Poland kept improving. Unfortunately, young sixteen year old goaltender Adam Vay couldn't handle the pressure on this day, allowing eight goals on thirty shots before being replaced. The backup, David Gyenes, made 22 saves without allowing a goal. Aron Chimielewski got a hat trick, capping off a dominant tournament in which he won the scoring title with thirteen goals and seven assists. Tamas Virag of Hungary had a goal and three assists to finish second in scoring with ten goals and nine assists. Poland wins the group and goes to Div. 1B, while Hungary will be one of the favourites next year in Div. 2A.
Robert Gliga had a goal and two assists as the home team finished strong to claim fourth place. The fighting Aussies again were involved in a slugfest, as 329 PIMs were handed out, though more went to Romania (180). Shots were 38-33 for the Aussies in the end. Romanian captain Tomas Biro topped off an ugly sequence with 3 minutes to play, taking a five minute major for kicking while everyone was involved in a line brawl. Both teams will renew their hatred next year in Division 2B.
Final Standings: 1. Poland (5-0), 2. Hungary (4-1), 3. South Korea (3-2), 4. Romania (2-3), 5. Australia (1-4), 6. China (0-5).
Top Players: Goaltender: Ayden Millward (AUS); Defenseman: Jakub Wanacki (POL); Forward: Bong Jin Lee (KOR)