Finn & Slovak U18s win home tourneys
by Derek O'Brien|13 FEB 2023
Kasper Halttunen led Finland in scoring during their home-ice tournament win.
photo: Matt Zambonin / IIHF
In this past weekend’s international break, many of the teams that will take part in the 2023 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship at various levels were in action at different tournaments around Europe. Among those, seven of the 10 teams that will take part in the top division in  Switzerland played in two tournaments in Finland and Slovakia, which were each won by the host teams.

Finns, Americans, Swedes on even terms

Finland, the United States and Sweden finished in a three-way tie with six points each atop the four-nations tournament in Rauma, Finland on the weekend. USA beat Sweden 4-1 on Friday, Finland beat USA 5-2 on Saturday and Sweden beat Finland 4-2 on Sunday. As a result of the goal difference among those three games, Finland was ranked first, followed by the U.S. and Sweden.

“Overall, a very successful tournament,” Finnish head coach Lauri Merikivi told the association’s website. “The Czech game was tight and we were able to turn it into a victory. The USA game, on the other hand, was a big battle. The game against Sweden was disappointing, we didn’t quite play our best, but overall it was a good week.”

Finland was led offensively by IFK Helsinki’s Kasper Halttunen, who had five points and is a projected first-round draft pick at this summer’s NHL Entry Draft. He’s one of four potential returnees from last year’s bronze-medal squad in Germany – the others being Tuomas Uronen, goalkeeper Eemil Vinni and 2006-born defender Aron Kiviharju.

The top three scorers all came from the USA, thanks in part to a 9-1 victory over Czechia to finish up the tournament. Gabe Perreault with nine points, Will Smith with eight, and Ryan Leonard with seven led the way. Smith and Perreault were both members of last year’s silver-medal U18 team in Germany and all three are projected first-rounders. Goalie Trey Augustine – also a returnee from last year – led goalkeepers with a 95.9 save percentage in two games. 

 Czechia – who finished fourth in last year’s U18 Worlds – finished fourth in this tournament as well, losing all three games. Czechia’s hopes this year will be led by returning player Eduard Sale of Kometa Brno, who had one goal this weekend. 

All four of the teams will be considered among the medal favourites at the 2023 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship in Basel and Porrentruy, Switzerland, 20-30 April along with Canada.

Sweden enters the tournament as defending champion following last year’s 6-4 victory over the USA in the final in Landshut. The Swedes have two potential returnees – defender Theo Lindstein and forward Otto Stenberg – who had four and three points this weekend, respectively.

“Difficult choices are ahead,” Merikivi said about the player selection process. “New players have joined the national team and the players develop at a slightly different pace. We still have to carefully monitor what happens in the coming months. Not everybody can make the team.”

Slovaks ride high in the Tatras

At the annual Vladimir Dzurilla Tournament in the foothills of the Tatra Mountains in picturesque Poprad, Slovakia, the host team wrapped up first place by winning their first two games in regulation time – 6-3 over Switzerland and 3-0 over Japan – before dropping their last game to Germany, 4-3 in a shootout, to finish with seven points.

“It’s a shame that we didn’t beat the Germans despite a good effort,” said Slovak forward Juraj Pekarcik, who already plays in the top Slovak league with HK Nitra. “In the end it didn’t work out, but we’re moving on and thinking about the World Championship. We’re a good team and we had a good tournament, except for the second game against Japan. We didn’t get off to a good start in that one but, fortunately, it ended as well as it could for us.”

The top scorer for the weekend was Slovakia’s Daniel Jencko with six points, followed by teammate Pekarcik and Switzerland’s Rafael Meier with five.

The opening loss to Slovakia was the only blemish on Switzerland’s record, who followed it up with a 3-0 shutout of Germany and a 4-2 win over Japan. Liam Deussen recorded the weekend’s only shutout and had a tournament-best 1.00 goals-against average in two games.

“I think we had a really good week,” said Swiss head coach Marcel Jenni. “We’re preparing for the World Championship – we’re really excited to be playing at home – and with six or seven of our regulars not here, we had a few new faces here and we tried a few new things and worked on our structure. It’s about the details.”

Germany started the tournament with a shocking 2-1 overtime loss to Japan and was then shut out by Switzerland, but finished up strong with a shootout win over Slovakia to claim third place.

“We had a really bad start against Japan,” German head coach Alexander Duck admitted. “They’re a very quick team and I think they surprised every team in this tournament. Then the second game wasn’t much better but it was important we stuck to our system and we improved with each game, and so I’m happy to finish with this win.”

Japan, who will compete in Division I Group A in Angers, France, made quite an impression on the other three teams with very competitive games against the three top-division squads. On the first day, Kaito Okubo’s overtime goal had them poised to take third place until Germany rallied to tie and win in a shootout in the last game. 

“This was a huge experience for the Japanese team,” said assistant coach Sam Liebkind. “This is the first time we’re playing against Switzerland and Germany – Slovakia we played last year – but just to face teams of this calibre is huge for this age category. As for results, we beat Germany, which is the first time in history at this age category, I think, which was a surprise for all of us.”

Other tournaments

The four-team event in Gjovik, Norway featured two top-division-bound teams in host Norway and Latvia, who, unsurprisingly, finished first and second. The Norwegians, who were promoted after finishing second at last year’s Division I Group A in Piestany, were the class of the tournament, with three regulation wins, while Latvia lost to Norway 2-1 on the opening day and needed overtime to edge Denmark 2-1. Denmark will play in Division I Group A again this year, while Austria will go to Division I Group B in Slovenia. Alex Sjothun of Norway and Daniel Olsson of Denmark were co-leaders in scoring with four points each. 

In Cergy-Pontoise, France, Hungary was victorious with regulation wins over Italy and Slovenia and a 1-0 overtime loss to host France in the tournament’s last game. Had they won in regulation, the French could have forced a three-way tie with Hungary and Slovenia, but instead finished third with five points. Slovenia finished second, losing only to Hungary, while Italy was winless. France will also host the Division I Group A World Championship in Angers, where Hungary will join them. Slovenia will host Division I Group B in Bled, where Italy will also compete.

Finally, at the Bytom Winter Cup in suburban Katowice, Poland, Estonia dominated with three regulation wins, outscoring opponents 14-3 in the process. Aleksandr Smirnov led all scorers with five points. In a tight battle for second place, Lithuania edged Poland 5-4 in overtime. Hungary sent its second roster to this event that was unable to get a point against the other three. Estonia and Poland will both travel to Slovenia for Division I Group B, while Lithuania will play in Division II Group A in Belgrade, Serbia.

Scores & Standings

Four Nations Tournament in Finland
10 Feb. Rauma (FIN) USA - Sweden 4-1
10 Feb. Rauma (FIN) Finland - Czechia 4-2
11 Feb. Rauma (FIN) Sweden - Czechia 3-1
11 Feb. Rauma (FIN) Finland - USA 5-2
12 Feb. Rauma (FIN) Finland - Sweden 2-4
12 Feb. Rauma (FIN) Czechia - USA 1-9
Standings: 1. Finland 6, 2. USA 6, 3. Sweden 6, 4. Czechia 0.
Vlado Dzurilla Tournament in Slovakia
9 Feb. Poprad (SVK) Slovakia - Switzerland 6-3
9 Feb. Poprad (SVK) Germany - Japan 1-2 OT
10 Feb. Poprad (SVK) Slovakia - Japan 3-0
10 Feb. Poprad (SVK) Switzerland - Germany 3-0
11 Feb. Poprad (SVK) Japan - Switzerland 2-4
11 Feb. Poprad (SVK) Slovakia - Germany 3-4 SO
Standings: 1. Slovakia 7, 2. Switzerland 6, 3. Germany 3, 4. Japan 2.
Four Nations Tournament in Norway
10 Feb. Gjovik (NOR) Denmark - Austria 3-0
10 Feb. Gjovik (NOR) Norway - Latvia 2-1
11 Feb. Gjovik (NOR) Latvia - Denmark 2-1 OT
11 Feb. Gjovik (NOR) Austria - Norway 0-1
12 Feb. Gjovik (NOR) Latvia - Austria 3-2
12 Feb. Gjovik (NOR) Norway - Denmark 5-2
Standings:1. Norway 9, 2. Latvia 5, 3. Denmark 4, 4. Austria 0.
Four Nations Tournament in France
9 Feb. Cergy-Pontoise (FRA) Hungary - Italy 4-0
9 Feb. Cergy-Pontoise (FRA) France - Slovenia 0-2
10 Feb. Cergy-Pontoise (FRA) Slovenia - Hungary 2-3
10 Feb. Cergy-Pontoise (FRA) Italy - France 2-5
11 Feb. Cergy-Pontoise (FRA) Italy - Slovenia 2-4
11 Feb. Cergy-Pontoise (FRA) France - Hungary 1-0 OT
Standings: 1. Hungary 7, 2. Slovenia 6, 3.France 5, 4. Italy 0.
Bytom Winter Cup in Poland
9 Feb. Bytom (POL) Hungary - Estonia 0-8
9 Feb. Bytom (POL) Poland - Lithuania 1-4
10 Feb. Bytom (POL) Hungary - Lithuania 4-5 OT
10 Feb. Bytom (POL) Poland - Estonia 1-2
11 Feb. Bytom (POL) Lithuania - Estonia 2-4
11 Feb. Bytom (POL) Poland - Hungary 3-0
Standings: 1. Estonia 9, 2. Lithuania 5, 3. Poland 3, 4. Hungary 1.