After the withdrawal of Australia and China only four teams were left in the group. They played a round-robin tournament in four days with the third one as a rest day. In the opening game of the event Croatia played against Spain, the relegated nation from Group A back in 2019. After three years forced pause due to the pandemic and teams filled with rookies at the world stage, there were many ambiguities. In a high-tempo game with a lot of shots on goal Filip Kasparek scored in the first period. 20 minutes later it was still 1-0 for Croatia, but Spain had a chance to tie on a power play. Instead, Bruno Idzan had a shorthanded goal and six minutes later the captain Tin Alic capitalized on a man advantage to made it 3-0. There were two more goals (Idzan again and Matej Mandusic) in a five-minute span in the third period for the final score 5-0. Teo Janjatovic-Loncar made 31 saves and was chosen for the best player of the game for Croatia and later for the Best Goalkeeper of the tournament.
The next day Croatia routed Netherlands 8-1 after a close first period, three goals in six minutes in the third, followed by two power-play tallies in the end. Karlo Marinkovic had 5 points (2+3), Luka Bodiroga 4 (2+2), Alic 3 (1+2). After Spain had beaten against Bulgaria in the second game of the day, the winner of the group was already known.
“I think that the most important reason for our success is that we were able to play 32 games in ICEJL with teams from Austria and Hungary. 15 of our players were part of this Croatia Select Team. The others were able to play in Sweden, Germany, Slovenia. We have a very good team spirit. The boys understand each other very well on the ice,” said Croatian head coach Domen Vedlin. “We have a really good generation. There are many players born in 2005 and 2006 on this roster and we can count on them for the next year too. We were missing some players from this age group as well – two are still playing playoffs in Austria and one player in Sweden got Covid. Next year will be tough, but we have to work harder and play many games to be well prepared for the bigger challenge.”
In the last game of the tournament, 5-1 versus Bulgaria, the Croats showed once again great combinations on the power play, scoring in just 11 and 9 seconds respectively on their first two man advantages. Marinkovic had four assists and Bodiroga claimed four points (2+2) as they finished 1-2 in the tournament scoring leaders list, respectively with 10 and 8 points. It’s an amazing accomplishment considering that at the moment there are only two functional ice hockey rinks in Croatia, but the team is winning impressively. “We have only one ice rink in Zagreb plus one smaller for kids and one that works only four months in the year. Dom Sportova is out after the earthquake. There is one in Sisak and that’s all. Right now, we have just four teams, so the situation is not good. The Croatian Ice Hockey Federation is working on building a new rink next year and hopefully this will start a positive path,” explained Vedlin.
In a battle for the second place in the group Spain defeated the Netherlands 3-1 on Thursday. After a scoreless first period, despite a 15-3 shot advantage for Spain, there were two goals in five minutes in the middle of the second period – Bosco Collado and Hugo Casaus scored on power plays. The Dutch cut the deficit in half with a power-play goal on their own by Floris Vooren. The deciding moment of the game was five minutes before the end. Hugo Perez was penalized for an illegal check to the head, but instead of a game-tying goal for the Oranje it was Perez, who scored 17 seconds after the expiration of his penalty.
“We didn’t get the promotion to Group A but we are happy with our performance. We had many young players and everyone battled hard throughout the tournament. Our problem is that we couldn’t organize enough training camps and games for the team as Croatia did,” said Timo Tuomi, head coach of Spain.
There were only three players and two goalkeepers, born in 2004, on the roster of the host team and this was the first U18 tournament for Bulgaria in such quality company since 2003. As expected, Bulgaria finished last, but showed progress with every game. “Our even strength game got better but we didn’t have enough time to put together good power-play and penalty-kill units. I think the spirit of our locker room and the feeling of our learning got better. We found out a goaltender who played great for us – Andy (Andrea Karabadjakov). The core of kids that we have is a surprise, especially how well they get along. We have players that care and their level of compete got up and during the tournament the small percentage of negativity got even smaller,” explained Derek Eisler, who made his debut as a head coach of the Bulgarian team.