International Ice Hockey Federation

Scores to settle in Group B

Scores to settle in Group B

Host Russia hopes to get back at Finns in Chelyabinsk

Published 19.04.2018 04:24 GMT+5 | Author Slava Malamud
Scores to settle in Group B
Danila Galenyuk (right) is the only Russian player to return from last year’s U18 team. Photo: Steve Kingsman / HHOF-IIHF Images
Russia’s path to the U18 World Championship final was blocked by Finland. Now, they face off in Group B, with Czech Republic and Slovakia looking to surprise.

CZECH REPUBLIC

The Czechs’ World U18 journey was rather disappointing last year, with only a win over Belarus to show for their efforts. That said, their quarterfinal exit was extremely dramatic, as the Narodni Tym battled their way back from a 5-1 deficit against the mighty Finland, only to succumb in overtime.

The bulk of the Czechs’ experience is in their own defensive third, anchored by team captain Libor Zabransky of the Kelowna Rockets of the WHL, who impressed at the Hlinka Memorial with four goals in as many game. Fellow 2017 veteran Tomas Dajcar is a stalwart for the QMJHL’s Quebec Remparts. But the Czech offense also has some star power to showcase. In particular, Jakub Lauko from Chomutov, Jan Jenik from Liberec and Matej Pekar, who will attend the University of Nebraska-Omaha next fall, have all been turning NHL scouts’ heads. Lauko, ranked 18th among European skaters by NHL Central Scouting, spent the entire season with the grown-ups at Pirati of the Czech Extraliga, scoring nine points in 42 games. Jenik, who is ranked even higher at 13th, got only six Extraliga games with Bily Tigri, but managed to appear in the Champions League, all while having a stellar debut season in the Czech second division. Pekar, meanwhile, was almost a point-a-game scorer in the USHL (14 goals and 40 assists for 54 points in 56 games). Czechs might once again be underdogs when facing Russia or Finland, but they surely won’t be an easy opponent.

FINLAND

The Finns, of course, have become a world U18 superpower lately, having made the final in the last three years, winning gold in 2016. In Chelyabinsk, Suomi will be in no hurry to give up their newly-acquired vaunted status. Led by the superstar forwards Rasmus Kupari and Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Finland will be looking to play offensive-minded hockey. Kupari, who played 39 games in his debut season in the Finnish Liiga with Karpat Oulu, was very impressive at the Hlinka Memorial with seven points in four games. Kotkaniemi played the entire season in Liiga, with Assat, and was able to more than hold his own against grown men, to the music of 10 goals and 19 assists. He has been a point-per-game scorer with the U18 national squad and has already played some games for the U20 team. Both will almost certainly go high in the 2018 NHL Draft.

Elsewhere on offense, Niklas Nordgren had spent last season rapidly outgrowing HIFK’s U20 team and showed great form in his two appearances in the Champions Hockey League (six points). In short, Suomi should have little trouble turning on the red light in Chelyabinsk. Moreover, since producing great goalies is what the Nordic country has received so much acclaim for in the last years, they should do a great job keeping their own light safely off. While filling the pads of Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, Finland’s hero of the last two U18 World Championships, wouldn’t be easy for anyone, the generously sized Justus Annunen (191 cm, 91 kg) had a great season in the Finnish junior league with Karpat U20 and even earned a Liiga debut at the tender age of 17.

No, Finland doesn’t seem ready to descend from the world U18 podium quite yet, and it will take an effort to dislodge it.

FRANCE

For the U18 World Championship debutantes, the goal will be survival in the top tier. Les Bluets’ impressive performance in the 2017 Division I A tournament in Bled has made history, but it may take an even bigger effort for Romain Guibert’s side to make sure its stay among the world’s elite isn’t short-lived.

Les Bluets will have to do it without all of their top scorers from 2017, as Alexandre Texier, Hugo Sarlin, Louis Olive, and Teemu Loizeau have all graduated out of the U18 age group. Texier, a second-round NHL draft pick by the Columbus Blue Jackets, will be particularly hard to replace, so obviously the French will need an enormous effort in their defensive zone to compensate the inevitable drop in scoring prowess. Matis Bourillon, the only blueliner from the 2017 squad, will need to rally the troops. Up front, the talent and experience of Samuel Rousseau, who is already pulling first-team duties at Strasbourg, will be heavily relied upon.

RUSSIA

It doesn’t matter which tournament Russia plays in and at which age group, the expectations are always high, and this year, on home ice in hockey-crazed Chelyabinsk, they will be higher still. So, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the goings-on around the Sbornaya are always a topic of heightened interest. This year, as has often been the case lately, they have provided the Russian media with plenty to mull about.

The biggest question surrounding the hosts appears to be not who is on the World Championship roster, but who isn’t. The most noticeable omission is Grigori Denisenko, a top-five NHL Draft prospect among European skaters. The feisty Loko Yaroslavl playmaker, known for delivering an occasional crushing check despite his modest 179 cm frame, had earned himself a few Gagarin Cup games with the parent team and was called the best 17-year-old in Russia by the hockey media. Yet he isn’t going to Chelyabinsk, a decision attributed by the coaches to a shoulder injury. Denisenko himself has denied he is hurt and is currently playing, rather well, in the Kharlamov Cup Final with Loko. The real motivation behind his omission might be a dirty hit he delivered earlier in the playoffs that didn’t sit well with the coaching staff.

Be it as it may, another gifted forward the Russians will definitely miss is Denisenko’s national team linemate Alexander Khovanov, a point-a-game player with the Moncton Wildcats of the QMJHL. Despite the fact that Moncton is out of the playoffs, the coaching staff has decided not to invite the top prospect for reasons undisclosed. This, of course, leaves the final member of Russia’s top line, a possible top-five NHL Draft pick Andrei Svechnikov of the Barrie Colts, who has already played for the U20 team during their own Worlds campaign in Buffalo, recording five assists in as many games. Svechnikov might arguably be called the best forward in the tournament. He is coming off a monstrous OHL season, with 77 points in 44 games, adding 11 more in eight playoff tilts.

Of course, the Russians will still be stacked offensively, because that’s how Russia rolls. The dynamic duo from Mamonty Yugry, Kirill Marchenko and Ivan Morozov, as well as the Hlinka Memorial hero Dmitri Zavgorodny of the Rimouski Oceanic, will provide plenty of firepower. But Russia will need plenty of defense if it is to have any hope of winning the gold, what with the mighty Americans and Swedes also vying for the honors. Luckily, the Sbornaya has a pair of stalwarts in net: Danil Isayev is coming off a lights-out season with Loko Yaroslavl (1.56 GAA, 93.6 save percentage in 19 games) and Amir Miftakhov has had just as impressive a campaign with Irbis Kazan (1.91 GAA, 93.4 save percentage in 26 games). With a top-ranked defenseman Danila Galenyuk of Mamonty Yugry likely to log prime ice time in the back end, Russia can once again boast a well-balanced, powerful team, controversies and all.

SLOVAKIA

One could be forgiven for regarding Slovakia an afterthought in the U18 Worlds, as it seems that every year its fate is predetermined: a mediocre showing in the group (3rd place in the last three tournaments, 4th in 2014), followed by a quick exit in the quarterfinals. And that’s when the Slovaks are not playing in the relegation round or are actually relegated, as was the case every year between 2008 and 2013. Then again, Russia is the place where the Slovak U18s have celebrated their greatest triumph, the 2003 silver medal in Yaroslavl. And, just like now, they were coming off a disappointing showing on home ice the previous year… Yes, when you are a perennial afterthought, you cling to any good omen you can find.

However, Norbert Javorcik’s squad will have more than just historical parallels to rely on in Chelyabinsk. Be it the big defenseman Martin Bucko from the Czech junior league’s Pardubice, or the crafty 17-year-old winger Maxim Cajkovic who is turning heads in the Swedish Super Elit with the Malmo Redhawks U20s (21 points in 28 games), or even the American high-schooler Daniel Tkac, a son of Slovakian immigrants playing AAA Midget hockey in Nebraska, the Slovaks will have to find resources somewhere to advance past their own glass ceiling of the quarterfinal.

 

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