The game was a matchup of two previously unbeaten teams, as the Finns had taken all nine points from their previous games while the Americans had eight, making it the de facto final.
After a scoreless first period, Aatu Raty opened the scoring in the second period and Kasper Simontaival made it 2-0 Finland early in the third.
“The play was along the boards, I passed it to the point and then there was a shot and it was just a deflection,” Raty, who’s not eligible to be drafted until 2021, said about his goal.
Despite out-shooting the Finns 36-20 in the game, the USA could only beat Juho Markkanen once and that came with 6:27 to play while the Americans had a 5-on-3 advantage when Thomas Bordeleau set up captain Jake Sanderson. The Americans pressed hard for the equalizer but Markkanen held the fort and Simontaival added his second of the game into the empty net in the final minute.
“The first period was hard for us. The Americans are a good team and they have lots of good skaters and they play hard,” said Finnish coach Mika Marttila. “But we were able to prove ourselves and the third period was the best for us, I think. Good defence and a good goalie gave us lots of confidence.”
“That was a great hockey game,” said U.S. coach Seth Appert. “Two proud hockey teams that play the game the right way – hard, physical, competitive, strong defensively – and that’s the way the game played out. I liked a lot of what we did but we just couldn’t get one by Markkanen when we needed to.”
Playing three of Finland’s four games, Markkanen had the tournament’s best save percentage and goals-against average – 95.77 and 1.46, respectively.
The two countries have developed somewhat of a rivalry in international hockey in recent years, having met in the gold medal game at two U18 Worlds, one World Junior Championship and one Women’s World Championship in the past three years.
“It’s a great rivalry,” said Appert. “There’s healthy respect in the way both countries play but there’s certainly a lot of animosity and competitiveness, and we’re seeing it play out a lot in big games at the U18s, U20s and now even in the men’s and women’s, as well.”
“They’ve won the U18 World Championships many times so we know they’re a good team,” Marttila said about the USA. “Our players and staff look forward to these games because they’re always full of emotion.”
With seven points each, Simontaival and Sanderson were the top two scorers of the tournament, while Bordeleau, Raty and Finns Samu Tuomela and Roni Hirvonen all had six.
The final day also matched up the tournament’s two winless teams, with both Sweden and the host Czechs hoping to avoid the basement. Despite being reduced to only five defenceman for the last game, Sweden came away 4-1 winners to finish fourth. The team’s leading scorers over four games were defenceman Emil Andrae and forward Oskar Magnusson with four points. It was a disappointing finish for the Swedish team, which brought most of its top players eligible for the U18 Worlds – although noticeably absent were Alexander Holtz and Lucas Raymond.
“It was a tough tournament for us,” said Zion Nybeck, one of the only Swedish players who is a returnee from last year’s gold-medal-winning team. “I really don’t know why. We have a lot of great players and I know we are capable of better.”
“Of course you want to win the games, but I think the biggest thing for us right now is we’ve got a picture of where we stand with the other teams and what we need to do,” said Swedish head coach Magnus Havelid, whose team is the defending U18 World Champion. “It’s two months before the World Championship and we’ve got a lot of work to do. It’s important not to get frustrated by these results but to look forward to what we have to do to play our best hockey in April.”
Despite finishing winless, the Czechs were encouraged by strong home crowd support and took both the USA and Russia to extra time before losing each. Then they led Sweden 1-0 early in their last game before succumbing. Without any projected first-round picks on the roster, forward Tomas Urban led the team with four points – all assists.
“This team has character,” said Czech coach Jakub Petr. “They’re a bunch of fighters, which we need to have going into the World Championship. In every game there was just a bit of a stretch where we couldn’t stay with our opponents, so we’ll try to eliminate that with a better team approach.”
Russia played its last game on Saturday, a 4-3 shootout win over the Czechs. After finishing with five points, the Russians knew they could finish no higher than third, and when all was said and done that’s exactly where they ended up. The Russians had trouble scoring goals, with no players registering more than three points. Goalie Yaroslav Askarov, who already owns a World Junior Championship silver medal and might be the top goalie chosen at the upcoming draft, played in three of Russia’s games and was brilliant at times, but also allowed a couple of questionable goals.
The five teams in this tournament make up half of the teams that will take part in the 2020 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship, which runs 16 to 26 April in Plymouth and Ann Arbour, Michigan, USA.
“I think we’re on schedule,” said Manttila. “Now it’s important that everyone plays well with their clubs and give ourselves the best possible chance to be successful when we go to the States.”
Slovaks sweep at homeMeanwhile, three other teams that will go to the USA for the U18 Worlds went to Piestany, Slovakia for the annual Vladimir Dzurilla Memorial Tournament and all were defeated by the host Slovaks. Slovakia, which was relegated from the top division of the U18 World Championships last year in Sweden, got some measure of revenge, beating Germany, Switzerland and Belarus by a combined 9-3 score.
Second place went to Belarus, followed by Switzerland and Germany – the latter earning promotion after winning the Division I Group A tournament on home ice last year.
Vitali Antanovich of Belarus led the tournament with four goals and six points. The top goalie was Slovak Simon Opatovsky, who played in two of his team’s games and allowed one goal in each, recording a save percentage of 95.12.
The Slovaks will host the 2020 U18 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A in Spisska Nova Ves from 13 to 19 April where they will try to earn promotion back to the top group with a first-place finish. Other participants will be Denmark, France, Kazakhstan, Norway and Japan.