The six teams that took part in the 2014 U20 Division I Group A World Championships held in Asiago from 14th to 20th December were on paper split in two trios: Norway, Latvia and Belarus competing for promotion, with host country Italy, Austria and Slovenia left battling to avoid relegation. The first two days of competitions perfectly followed the expected path, making even more surprising some of the next results.
On Wednesday 17th, after getting an early lead Norway appeared to underestimate the opponent and, with the help of a strong game by goalie Zan Us, a very young Slovenian squad was able to eventually tie the game with six skaters on the ice and less than a minute left on the clock. The Scandinavians needed a nice penalty shot by Markus Soberg to gain a 2-1 shootout win and two (out of three) points out of the game. That was however Soberg’s last mark on the tourney, as the Blue Jackets 6th rounder (the only drafted player attending the event) went down to an injury early in the following and decisive game versus Belarus.
On Thursday 18th, a dispirited Latvian team that had lost earlier in the day any remaining chances of promotion was upset by Italy. The Azzurri appeared fired up by their incredible comeback win in their previous game against Austria (when they were down 4-1 after the 2nd period) and were able to capitalize by playing a disciplined game in front of their delighted fans. The 4-2 win gave Italy the certain stay in group A Div.I, something absolutely impossible to forecast during the previous eve match, and coincidentally sealed the fate of Slovenia, as the Kopitar countrymen found themselves relegated with one day of games remaining as a result of their clear loss against Austria a few hours earlier.
On Saturday 20th Austria went as close as possible to upset the newly promoted Belarus when at the end of regulation they appeared to have scored the game winner, but their ongoing celebration was stopped soon after by the referee’s announcement: the time had expired before the puck crossed the goal line. The ensuing overtime was cut short by one more PP goal by Artur Buinitsky (his 4th PP tally and 8th goal overall, twice more than any other player in the competition), which allowed the winners to finish the tournament on a high note and undefeated.
Despite the unexpected struggles of the top three teams in the aforementioned games, Italy’s thunderous thud in the first period of the final game of the tournament against Slovenia made sure the medalists would be the foreseeable teams, as Latvia eventually finished third below Norway and Belarus.
Latvia was the youngest team of the competition with six ’97-born players all getting regular shifts, and as many as 13 out of 22 players eligible to return next year, included their starting goaltender. The coach’s decision to rely so much on underagers probably didn’t help their chances to win this event, but certainly provided a valuable experience for the kids that in April will face the difficult challenge of leading their national team at the U18 World Championship in Switzerland and bodes well for the team’s chances at next year U20 WJC. After all, with this green squad Latvia was very close to defeat Belarus in what was the best game of the tournament, a 2-1 decision on Wednesday 17th resulting from a late powerplay goal by Belarus 1st PP unit.
After an intense first period where both teams displayed their strong skating ability and Belarus appeared to be the better team, Latvia had several glorious chances to score in the 2nd period despite a misleading shots total, but some bad puck luck and a couple of desperation saves by Konstantin Koslovsky kept the Latvians at bay. The game got tense and tighter as it progressed; in the third period, after equalizing the game and falling down again with two minutes left, Latvia still managed to create a grade A chance to send the game to overtime, but Koslovsky again had the answer with a nice high blocker side save. Those last three minutes were probably the turning point of this year event, as an underwhelming team Norway was unable to stop Belarus the following day. Besides Koslovsky’s timely saves, the difference in the game was the puck management by the blueliners on the powerplay. It was never an issue for Belarus, whereas Latvia clearly missed someone able to efficiently manage the puck under pressure on the offensive blueline.
A team made of very good skaters, Belarus benefited from the inspired play of their first line (A.Buinitsky, Fadeyev and Ambrozheichik, voted the tournament best forward) and featured by far the best special teams (led by the strong play of captain Kris Khenkel), making the final outcome perfectly logic and deserved. Getting back into the top division after 8 years, Belarus will face a tough challenge next season in Helsinki with only four players eligible to return, none of them being among the leaders of this year squad.
Second placed Norway didn’t have the best luck when it mattered the most, quickly falling down 3-0 in the decisive game versus Belarus in a first period that could have been much closer and losing Soberg soon after, but from the 3rd game onward the team had some disappointing showings and the strong play of Mattias Norstebo, deservedly voted the tournament best defenseman, was not nearly enough to get back to the top division.
The event featured 23 prospects eligible for the first time for the NHL Entry Draft, spread over the six participating teams.
Only six attending prospects have been ranked by the NHL Central Scouting Services so far, with Slovenian 6’4” defenseman Luka Zorko leading the pack after receiving a surprising A grade in the first CSS preliminary ranking released in late September.
The other first time eligible prospects ranked by CSS were three forwards: Dmitri Buinitsky for Belarus, Lukas Haudum for Austria and Alexander Lambacher for Italy.
Taking part in the tournament were also five prospects eligible for the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, with two of them already playing relevant roles on their team.
HockeyProspect.com will release a report soon on how the most interesting prospects performed at this event.