Hungarian U18 impresses

Magyars march through with second promotion in two years

21.04.2014
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The Hungarian U18 national team players listen to the national anthem after one of their five wins on home ice in Szekesfehervar. Photo: HIHF

SZEKESFEHERVAR, Hungary – Hungary did not stick around for long in the U18 Division I Group B. For the second year in a row the Hungarian team under the leadership of Glen Williamson has been promoted from the group they were in. Originally, Slovenia, relegated to this tier last year, came in as pre-tournament favourite along with the two out of the three teams that finished tied for second place the previous year.

At the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship Division I Group A in Asiago, Italy, Slovenia had already been guaranteed relegation on the second to last game day but went into this year’s tournament under coach Rok Rosjek with eight players from last year’s team that were still eligible.

Japan, Austria and host nation Poland all finished with nine points in Division I Group B play last year in Tychy, with Japan receiving the silver and Austria the bronze. Japan was returning with seven players from a team that lost by one goal in a high scoring game to eventual champion Kazakhstan as well as a loss to home team Poland. Expectation were high for the nation of the rising sun as well as Austria, who boasts a very strong youth program both at the club level as well as internationally and was also returning seven players. The last two teams Ukraine and Hungary had played an exhibition game two days before the start of the tournament that Hungary had won 4-3 in overtime.

Coming into the tournament it seemed that the field would be split between the teams who were going to fight for promotion and not winning a medal would be a major disappointment for Austria, Japan and Slovenia. But one can never underestimate the host country playing in front of a large crowd especially when they are returning almost half their team from the previous year.

The tournament started pretty much as expected with Japan putting eight past Poland in an 8-2 win in which Yuya Funaka had two goals and two assists. That was pretty much when the tournament stopped following the script as Hungary took care of favourites Slovenia with surprising ease.

It was a close game during the early parts but as the game went on Hungary pulled away for the 6-1 win. The last game of opening day brought probably one the hardest fought games of the tournament as Austria squeaked by Ukraine 3-2. Every time Austria scored Ukraine was able tie it up until the last goal. Interestingly enough all five goals scored in the game were power-play goals.

The upsets and the close games continued on during the second day of the tournament. Slovenia played a nail-bitingly close game. Poland had scored first and also led 3-2 at one point but in the end they could not withstand the Slovenian attack. As surprising as it sounds, Slovenia needed a win if they wanted to medal and still have an outside chance of earning promotion.

Hungary kept up with their part as underdog as they took care of another tournament favourite with ease by beating Austria 6-2. After the win it was clear that Hungary was not only avoiding relegation but also had a chance to win the tournament as they were one of the two undefeated teams left.

Dieter Werfring would later say “We knew that along with Slovenia, Hungary as a host nation would not be an easy game. We originally wanted to win the gold. After the Hungary game we just went from game to game and see how many we can win.”

The other still undefeated was Japan. After a win against Ukraine, 4-2, Japan kept up winning in the fashion reflecting their style of play that is great skating and not making many mental mistakes.

Hungary and Japan were in the driver’s seat midway through the tournament with Slovenia and Austria needing a bit of math to have a chance to get the gold and Poland and Ukraine were playing to stay in. After self-admittedly struggling in the first periods of the first two games, Hungary came out and played probably their best game from start to finish. Roland Vokla and Csanad Erdely both had a hat trick each in the 11-0 thumping of Poland. Poland played hard but a couple of mental mistakes and ill-advised penalties hurt them early.

Japan had a chance to put the charge for gold in their own hands with a win against Austria, however, by the second period Austria had set the final score. Either way a matchup was set up that would pretty much decide the final winner of the tournament in Japan against Hungary while Ukraine took care of Poland, 6-0, to send the Poles down to Division II.

Japan took the early lead against Hungary and the game was tied 2-2. The host nation dominated the second period and opened a three goal cushion which they managed to hold through the rest of the game for an 8-4 win in a de facto gold-medal match.

Vilmos Gallo scored three out of the eight goals making him the third Hungarian player in the tournament to register a hat trick. As against Austria and Slovenia, it took the Hungarians time to get into the game but in the end they pulled away for the win. Csanad Erdely said after the game: “It’s an awesome feeling. Next year the younger guys will have a chance to play at a higher level.”

With Hungary beating Japan it meant that they were champion of the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship Division I Group B.

“Before the tournament we were focusing on Austria and Slovenia, since Hungary came up from the level one below, but after we saw what they did against Slovenia and Austria we knew we had to take them seriously. We expected it to be a good game but that we would win, once that did not happen we just wanted to finish as high as possible,” Kan Nakajima said after the game.

Before the last games were played all that was known was that Hungary had won the gold and that Poland would be finishing last. The three teams that were favoured to win the tournament were the three fighting for the two medals that were still up for grabs. Slovenia took on Japan in a thrilling match that saw Japan come out on top with the game being back and forth with neither team being able to pull away from the other. At one point Japan led 3-1 but Slovenia came back and took a 4-3 lead into the third period but Japan came back to tie it up at 4-4. The Japanese pulled their keeper and with a Slovenian player in the penalty box Japan scored the winning goal to set the final at 5-4.

Hungary had a hard time with Ukraine in their last game. Ukraine scored two early goals in the first period but Hungary was able to come back on two goals from Bence Stipsicz. In the end Hungary would need a power-play goal late in the game to give them a 4-3 win and an undefeated run through the tournament. Austria locked up second place with a 6-0 win against Poland in which Daniel Jakubitzka had a goal and an assist.

The end result of the week-long tournament in Szekesfehervar was that the host country won the gold, their neighbours to the west, Austria, won the silver and a country that borders both, Slovenia, won the bronze.

“The key for us was the first game against Hungary which we lost. That is not a good way to start but we are happy with the medal,” said Slovenian coach Rok Rojsek after the tournament. “The first game did have a mental effect but luckily we got past Poland. We knew that Hungary would be good on home ice. Our goal was to get the best results while playing our system and this would be good for next year’s team who has a real chance of winning the tournament.”

This tournament win for Glen Williamson and his staff was not just about the games that they won but seeing the fruits of the labour that they had put in in installing a youth system. Seeing both coach and players buy into this system, Williams said: “The players believed in themselves. They had great pride in themselves and the program and the team. There are a lot of players on this team that have a great future in hockey. There are NHL scouts at the tournament and there have been some enquiries to play at higher levels. This is a phenomenal group. The U20 will be strong next year,” said Williamson.

Click here for scores, stats and photos.

SZABOLCS ZAVODSZKY

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