BUDAPEST – The 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 Women’s World Championship is set to begin on Sunday, with four matchups to start the tournament. With a North American rivalry that’s hotter than ever, a group of European nations hungry to seize a medal, and even a few Olympians taking to the ice, Hungary is in for some great hockey.
Canada will begin its 2013 championship title defence against Japan, a country returning to the top division after winning last year’s Division I tournament. 2013 overtime hero Karly Heffernan will be one of the few returnees for the Canadians. In Vierumäki, Finland last year, Heffernan scored the gold medal winner against the U.S. less than a minute into extra time, winning Canada’s second straight women’s U18 title. She is one of just two players from last year’s group (forward Hannah Miller being the other), leaving some open questions about the team going into 2014.
"The front end is definitely our strength, our back end is solid, but inexperienced,” said team manager Melody Davidson. “We have no returning defencemen. Our goaltenders too are unproven. They're solid, but they're going to have to be consistent for us for sure."
The main obstacle standing in Canada’s way of a three-peat is the United States, which up until two years ago dominated this tournament winning three of the first four championships. Canada's recent medal run has tied the two countries up at three golds apiece.
For Team USA to avenge last year’s tough loss to the Canadians, head coach Jeff Kampersal will need to figure out how to replace the offensive production that came from 2013 MVP Katherine Schipper, Amy Menke, and Megan Wolfe, who registered a combined 28 points in five games.
Among the girls expected to step up for the Americans are forward Grace Zarzecki and defenceman Jincy Dunne. Zarzecki, a two-sport high school star in hockey and track, had three goals and four assists in Finland last year and is considered among the team’s top offensive prospects.
At just 16-years-old, Dunne was named to the preliminary Olympic USA national women’s senior team but did not make the final cut, narrowly missing out on an opportunity to compete in Sochi as the youngest U.S. women’s hockey player ever.
“Going from the national team to the Under-18 team, I’ve been told this is your chance to be a leader and true leaders lead by example,” Dunne said. “It’s your actions, how you act, your words and how you treat your teammates. It’s getting those working in a positive manner so you can encourage and champion your teammates.”
Dunne will be counted on to anchor the USA blue line as one of the most talented defenders in her age group.
“Jincy is the next best U.S. hockey player,” said Kampersal. “She’s incredibly talented, she has a great skill set and she can control a whole game.”
Compared to Canada’s two, Team USA is bringing back eleven players from last year’s silver medal-winning team, so continuity is on the Americans’ side.
Among the European teams there is first and foremost Sweden, which claimed its second straight bronze medal in Vierumäki last season and has been a consistent medal contender since the tournament began in 2008. However, the team struggled to match up against the North Americans last year in Finland, falling 8-0 to USA in the preliminary round and 7-2 to Canada in the semi-final.
But that’s not to say the team lacks for producing talent. 2013 U18 top scorer Michelle Lowenhielm followed up with an appearance on the women’s national team in Sochi, not only making the team but carving out a role for herself as a solid secondary scorer with a goal and two assists in six games. She won’t be on the U18 squad this year, so the Swedes will have to look to a few new faces to get pucks in the net. Among these is forward Viktoria Samuelsson, who boasts an impressive hockey pedigree as the daughter of two-time Stanley Cup champion Ulf Samuelsson.
The Swedes will miss the stellar goaltending provided by Minatsu Murase, who came on late last year as an injury replacement and recorded a 5-0 shutout in the bronze medal game. But Julia Aberg performed ably in net last year when called upon, and will likely get the first crack in net.
After Sweden, it’s an open race between the Czech Republic, Finland, host Hungary, and Russia. Japan, having come back into the top division after a one-year relegation spell, will be hard pressed to make an impact. Forwards Ayuko Aoki, Haruka Toko, and Rui Ukita topped the scoring table at the Division I tournament last year and will try to recapture their offensive magic. But posting an upset in Group A which includes the Canadians, Czechs, and Finns will be a challenge.
There will also be a small Sochi contingent competing in Budapest. Finland gets back All-Star forward Emma Nuutinen, who will compete in her third U18 Worlds. At the Olympics, the 17-year-old recorded her only goal in the quarter-final game against Sweden, tying the game up 2-2 before ultimately losing to the Swedes 4-2.
Anna Shokhina is Russia’s main offensive weapon and will be the one player every team in Group B will need to be aware of whenever she hits the ice. The 16-year-old is one of the best skaters in the tournament and helped her country to a sixth-place finish on home ice with four points in Sochi.
“This is not a PR move or anything like that,” says Russia’s general manager Alexei Yashin when Shokhina was named to the Sochi roster. “She has deserved the spot on the national team with her play, both at the U18 Women’s World Championship and for her club team, Tornado. Her inclusion into the Sochi roster is not a surprise for anyone involved.”
And what about hosts Hungary? They have been one of the best stories in international women’s junior hockey, coming out of nowhere to tear through the qualification tournament in 2012 to make into Division I. Once there the Hungarians stayed hot and went undefeated in five games, winning the Division I tourney in their first year of participation.
Hungary followed up its rise to the top in Vierumäki with a surprisingly close opening game against Canada and a historic upset over Germany to finish a sixth overall. Having now proved that they belong with the world’s top U18 teams, will they be able to sustain their success? Over half the team’s players are returning from last year, including key forwards like Tifani Horvath and Lili Pinter, defenceman Eniko Toth, and goalie Aniko Nemeth.
“We are expecting to stay in and not get relegated and the minimum is that we reach the same level as we did last year,” said forward Kriszti Krivi.
So it doesn’t sound like confidence will be an issue. And with an expected large crowd backing the team, which proved in Vierumäki that it can handle the pressure of big-game situations, don’t be surprised if Hungary makes a serious playoff push.
All of the games will be streamed live with both English and Hungarian commentators. You can access the live stream via icehockey.hu
or through the Hungarian Ice Hockey Federation’s Youtube page