As was done at the U20 WJC in Malmo, Sweden this past winter, the relegation round at the 2014 IIHF U18 World Championship will consist of a best-of-three playoff format. And much like at that WJC, the relegation round will feature Germany facing a Scandinavian country.
In this case, it’s Denmark and the Danes have spent all tournament preparing for the fate they knew they’d likely deal with when the tournament began. For both teams, this round presents a hurdle that they know will test their players mentally and physically, as the format just doesn’t allow for lightning to only strike once in order to retain the class.
Denmark came to Finland knowing things would be difficult. The country was entering the tournament without four of its eight best defensemen, all of whom are injured. In addition, its best prospect in ages, the Halifax Mooseheads' Nikolaj Ehlers, wasn’t available for the tournament due to his team taking part in the QMJHL playoffs. For a country like Denmark, a player of his caliber simply cannot be replaced. The program had been relegated in 2012 and the way back into the top level featured one of their better classes in recent years, so as is often the case for smaller ice hockey countries, a weaker wave of players has benefitted in experience by the work of a stronger class before them.
In the first game against host Finland, no true ability to keep up with the opponent could be shown and the game ended with an expected 6-1 loss. Try as they did, the Danes just never seemed to be in the game. They then faced the Czech Republic and, despite scoring two third period goals, the Danes lost 9-2, the largest loss of any team in this tournament. Things settled down a good bit after that and the Danes showed the ability to adjust. For over 30 minutes, they were only down 1-0 to the USA and kept the U.S. boys at bay with some stingy defense. Eventually, their efforts turned into penalties and the U.S. was able to open things up in the third period, winning 7-0.
For Denmark, the best game of the tournament took place against the upstart Swiss, only losing 3-2 in a close battle in which the Swiss scored in the waning minutes of the game. This served as a moral victory in preparing for the tasks at hand in the relegation round. More importantly, goaltender Thomas Lillie stopped 43 of 46 shots and was showing the type of netminding that could go a long way in a relegation round.
Germany entered the tournament knowing that it would barely have a chance to avoid the relegation round if it did not beat Slovakia right off the bat. The team got off to s fast start by scoring a goal after just 20 seconds of the first period. This momentum only lasted roughly 17 minutes before the Slovaks tied up the game on a strong, but stoppable, shot, and from there on out built up a lead that proved insurmountable for Germany. The end result was 4-1. Despite an upward battle, Germany courageously and effectively held Canada in check in a game that was 2-2 until the 55th minute. At that point, the Canadians managed three goals in the last five minutes, as Germany made a few mental mistakes and showed some tired legs in what was looking like a potential overtime affair. Games against Russia and Sweden did see Germany compete for phases at a time, but both opponents were able to make use of Germany’s lack of international experience and the games ended 5-2 and a whopping 9-3, respectively.
For American born coach Jim Setters, the goal of the tournament was to see his team improve game for game, shift for shift. Management feels the team has done that, even if the results don’t necessarily indicate it. Fortunately for the team, Maximilian Kammerer, who spent this past winter playing for the Regina Pats, has been the best offensive player on the team with three goals and five points. This was something the team had to get from him going into the tournament. Healthy offensive contributions have also come from Manuel Wiederer (four points) and Stefan Loibl (three points) while captain Andreas Eder (two points) has contributed with tough play in all three zones. Goaltending has been strong at times, but never strong enough over 60 minutes. Florian Proske will probably get the nod for the relegation round.
The German team has seen its play wane at junctures and move all over the charts in the first four games. The effort has often been there, but it has been very apparent that a team chock full of DNL players from its own top junior circuit just can’t compete effectively enough against their counterparts from bigger ice hockey countries. Defensively, there have been too many individual mistakes and, although the team can play a rough and tumble style, decision making with the puck has left much to be desired. This has been especially true when the defense has been pressured, often showing that they just aren’t used to the speed of this level. Also, the team simply needs to create too many chances in order to score.
For Denmark, the team has slowly but surely gotten used to this level of play. The defensive game has become very astute and the team is moving the puck away from danger areas in a better manner game for game. Up front, things have been anything but promising as only two players even have two points. Interesting has been the play of 6’3” 16-year-old Alexander True, a cousin to Nikolaj Ehlers, who’ll likely find his way to another country for developmental opportunities next fall. Otherwise, the team has few chiefs and must win through hard work and making use of timely chances. The will is there.
At this point, Germany’s junior-based team is playing a Danish club that has a number of players who spent this winter playing against men in one of their two top men’s leagues. For the Germans, many of their players are used to winning at the junior circuit and having loads of specialty teams play, and were used to being on the ice in all situations. Denmark’s players often assumed third- and fourth-line roles on men’s teams and, although used to the roughness that comes with that territory, haven’t always gained the important minutes along the way. Then again, if Thomas Lillie can provide two more games at the level he did against Switzerland, then the red and white may just stick at this level after all. For those watching, it’s difficult to think that the German attack can be held off the board long enough over a possible three-game stint. The Danes simply don’t have players such as Eder and Kammerer in their line-up and the defense just can’t put the physical hurt on opposing forwards the way Germany’s can.
Expect to see Germany weather the storm, with this best-of-three series ending up much like the one at the WJC in which Germany sent Norway packing in the third and last game.
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