BRECLAV, Czech Rep. – Ivan Hlinka's Cup has come home, as the Czech Republic won the U18 tournament named in his honour for the first time ever on Saturday night, with a 4-3 victory over the USA. It was the first time since 2007 that the final did not include Canada, the eight-time reigning champions heading into this year.
The pre-season tournament is widely regarded as the most important U18 tournament beside the IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship with the next edition taking place nearby in Poprad and Spisska Nova Ves, Slovakia, 13-23 April 2017.
“The whole tournament the boys worked hard, played as a team and stuck to the game plan, and this is the icing on the cake,” Czech coach Vaclav Varada said in the aftermath of the victory. “We beat some strong opponents – it was no fluke that we got to the final, and I think we deserved the gold medal.”
Before a lively crowd in South Moravia, the final game was tied 1-1 after one period and 3-3 after two, thanks to two goals from Czech winger Filip Zadina and a goal and an assist from U.S. left winger Mick Messner. In the third, the Czechs outshot the Americans 15-2, thanks in part to a five-minute power play that occurred after Ryan Poehling was ejected for spearing midway through the final frame. It was on that extended power play that Ondrej Machala scored the tournament-winning goal with 7:37 to play with a blistering one-time slapper from the top of the slot.
“The feeling is indescribable, because this is the first time in the history of this tournament that we've managed to win it. Eight times in a row Canada won it, and this year it's us,” said Machala, a junior player from Pardubice. “When you score the winning goal, it's an incredible feeling. It was a wild finish, but we battled to the end and we did it.”
“I thought it was a real good game,” U.S. coach Clark Donatelli said after the final. “I thought the Czechs played really well, they worked hard and our guys battled right down to the last little bit. I thought both teams competed – a lot of good players out there – and we didn't get the bounces tonight and the Czechs did. We're disappointed but we went hard from start to finish. We've got a good mix of players, some future NHLers who have good careers ahead of them and we won the silver medal, and we're really proud of that.”
Heading into the final the Americans had been perfect, winning all four games including a 4-2 win over the Czechs in the group stage – the only blemish on the record of the champions. The Americans were led by the scoring duo of Sasha Chmelevski and Michael Pastujov of the U.S. National Team Development Program, who topped the tournament scoring with 10 and 9 points, respectively. In goal, Cayden Primeau – son of former NHL forward Keith Primeau – was brilliant in goal, right up to and including the final.
The Czechs were led offensively by Zadina, whose five goals tied Chmelevski for the tournament lead. Zadina, just 16 years old and not eligible to be drafted until 2018, played two regular-season games in the Czech top senior league with Dynamo Pardubice last season. He might be going to the WHL's Vancouver Giants for 2016/17.
Both teams made it to the final via overtime victories in the semis on Friday. The Americans came back three times before edging Russia 4-3 on Pastujov's goal in the 66th minute, while Zadina was the Czech hero, scoring in the last minute of the 10-minute extra period for a 2-1 win over Sweden.
“I think the whole key to our victory was how in shape we are and our ability to play at a high level late in the game,” Pastujov said after the semi-final. “I was just trying to support the play and I was lucky enough to be in front and that happened... and it´s just really special. It's one of those moments that every player dreams of.”
In the game for third place, Russia avenged an opening-day loss to Sweden by scoring four goals in the first period en route to a 6-3 win. 16-year-old Andrei Svachnikov scored two of the goals, finishing with four in the tournament. The Ak Bars Kazan junior will play for the Muskegon Lumberjacks of the USHL in the upcoming season.
“Winning is always a good feeling, but it's our own fault we're not celebrating a medal of another colour,” said Russian coach Sergei Golubovich.
The Swedes started the tournament strong with two wins, then lost three in a row to finish fourth. Rogle BK's Timothy Liljegren, arguably the top-rated defenceman for the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, had four points, which trailed only Czech Jakub Galvas among D-men in the tourney.
“It's a little different, a bit slower but it's fun and a good experience,” Liljegren said, comparing U18 hockey to the SHL, where he played five games last season and is expected to play full-time this upcoming season. About his upcoming draft year he said: “I try not to think about it very much. I just try to play my game and if I play well, that should take care of itself.”
The biggest surprise of the tournament was Canada's fifth-place finish. In each of their first two games they dominated Slovakia and Russia early but could only muster 2-0 and 1-0 leads through 40 minutes. They then gave up two third-period goals in each game, which ultimately cost them three points and a spot in the semi-finals. Nonetheless they regrouped to beat Sweden in their last group-stage game and then Finland 4-3 in the game for fifth place.
“Every game we played better and better. We had some unlucky bounces in the first two games – 40 shots both games but just didn't get the bounces,” said Canadian coach Paul McFarland. Earlier after the loss against Russia he said: “Unfortunately we made one or two mistakes in the last couple minutes – it's a fine line between two very good teams but I thought we deserved better tonight. You've gotta put teams away, though. We had a number of great scoring chances but if you don't put teams away they're allowed to linger and do something at the end. That's probably the lesson to learn from this game.”
Canada's big gun was Maxime Comtois of the Victoriaville Tigres, one of the top rated prospects for the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. Comtois scored two goals against Slovakia, including the overtime winner, and two shorthanded breakaway goals in the first period against Sweden.
Finally, in the game for seventh place, Slovakia ended a seven-year, 30-game losing streak at the Hlinka Memorial with a 6-3 win over Switzerland. The Slovaks had shown resilience to earn a point in the first game against Canada and played well against Sweden and Russia for the most part, with only minor lapses of a few minutes costing them both games.