The penultimate day of competition at the World Junior Hockey Championships saw a crowd favorite bow out of a tournament in which they were clearly overmatched and a pre-tournament favorite finish its experience in a game they never expected to be in.
The day started with a contest between Finland and Germany at the Ottawa Civic Centre. The Finnish squad defeated the Germans 3-1 to finish 3-0 in the relegation round of the tournament, and send the Germans to Division 1 next year. With the loss, Germany was officially relegated from the WJC and is one of two teams that will cede its position to the Swiss and Austrian national teams next year.
Despite the final score, it wasn’t a cakewalk for the Finns, who featured three potential first-round selections in the 2009 NHL entry draft. The spirited squad from Germany made a game of it, despite the opponents jumping out to an early 2-0 lead following goals 22 seconds apart by Tommy Kivisto and Teemu Hartikainen.
German netminder Timo Pielmeier kept his squad in the contest despite facing 16 shots in the first period. His Finnish counterpart Juha Metsola had a much easier time of it as Germany could only muster four shots. However, the Germans fought back in the second, holding the Finns to 10 shots while firing back with eight of their own — including the period’s only goal by Jerome Flaake.
In the end, the Finns were too much for the Germans, pulling away in the third, buoyed greatly by a five-minute power play to start the period following David Wolf’s ejection from the game for head-butting. Blueliner Jyri Niemi scored 1:31 into the period to put the game away, and the Finnish squad retreated into a defensive shell to ride out the remaining time.
"We’re disappointed because we didn’t win the Latvia game — we didn’t play our best game, so we had no chance to come back [to this tournament]," German coach Ernst Hofner said. "Today’s game we had too many penalties — we wanted to come out hard in the third period, but when you’re down 5-3 [because of penalties], it’s hard."
Pielmeier (SJ) was even more vociferous in his disgust at his team’s performance.
"We just can’t look back to this. I will completely forget about this experience," he said. "I look at my numbers in the CHL [Shawinigan in the QMJHL] and my numbers here it’s different, because it’s two completely different kind of games. I just want to go back and try to win the Memorial Cp."
The day’s second game, also at the Civic Centre, featured the team that won the Canadian fans’ hearts, Kazakhstan, facing off against Latvia. The Kazakhs could have avoided relegation with a significant victory over the Latvians — factoring in goal differential. However, it was not to be as the Latvians posted their second consecutive 7-1 victory of the relegation round.
Entering the game, the Kazakhs — to an extent — held their own fate in their hands. With a victory over the Latvians, they could have forced a three-way tie between themselves, their opponents, and the Germans who had lost earlier in the day. Despite keeping it close for two periods and only trailing 2-0, the Latvians burst through in the third, tallying five goals and sending Kazakhstan out of the elite World Junior group for two years.
Despite being completely outclassed and overmatched throughout the tournament, the Kazakhs quickly developed a faithful following among the Civic Centre and ScotiaBank Place crowds who cheered every save, exhorted the players to shoot, and embraced these underdogs with every fibre of their being.
The evening’s final contest was the battle for fifth place, between the U.S. and the Czech Republic. The American squad was stunned earlier in the tournament by the Slovaks losing 5-3, forcing them out of medal contention and playing for position in next year’s tournament. And the Slovaks’ former enforced border mates almost continued the trend by throwing a scare into the American squad in Sunday’s final game. In the end, though, a young man who knows a little about scoring goals with the red, white, and blue on his chest ended the American’s tournament on a winning note as James vanRiemsdyk scored a highlight-reel goal through the legs in overtime to cap a 3-2 U.S. victory.
Team USA’s coach explained that he was proud of his charges for their continued resilience in a game that meant relatively little in the overall scheme of the tournament.
"No question, no question [it’s hard to get motivated for this type of game]. It’s hard all tournament to keep their focus on such an intense tournament," explained head coach Ron Rolston. "We start camp on [December] 15th and you keep working. It’s really difficult — especially when the bottom drops out and you don’t get a chance to play for a medal.
"You get drained with all the emotional stuff that goes on and it’s hard to get that edge back. That was our focus and it was obviously the Czech’s focus as it was a great game."
The U.S. opened the scoring when Eric Tangradi put the puck past Tomas Vosvrda with 11:24 remaining. The goal came just seconds after the Czechs successfully killed a penalty to Radko Gudas. The score remained the same through the second period, despite the Americans outshooting the Czechs 33-14 in what had become a rather listless game.
Things picked up early in the third when the Czechs tied the game thanks to a sloppy play where Zdenek Okal was able to come around the back of the net and take a wild swipe at a puck, which had just trickled through the crease after rolling off Stephan Novotny’s stick. The atmosphere continued to get increasingly surly — as evidenced by a terrible penalty taken by Czech blueliner Tomas Kundratek, which negated a power play just 11 seconds old. During the ensuing four-on-four-play, late hits, after-the-whistle shenanigans resulted a couple of fights. And a game that had been mired in mediocrity suddenly developed an edge.
With just over nine minutes left in the game Ondrej Roman broke down the right wing and fired a shot that looked stoppable, but eluded Josh Unice‘s right shoulder. The Americans quickly bounced back on the power play, two minutes later (during a five-minute major from the aforementioned fight) when Cade Fairchild fired another harmless-looking shot at the Czech net, which found its way past the red line.
Regulation solved nothing. And then Team USA’s second-overall all-time leading scorer came through in the clutch with the goal of the tournament. With just over two minutes remaining vanRiemsdyk cut towards the net and, finding himself running out of room, fed the puck through his legs, lifting it over the helpless goaltender with the blade of his stick still trailing.
"That was the first for something like that," vanRiemsdyk said. "The guy kind of fell and I didn’t have as much room as I would have wanted cutting across the net, so I knew I had to keep it short side. Really I don’t know what happened there — I just kind of let things flow."
Despite a heartbreaking loss to the Canadian squad and a surprise loss to the Slovaks, Team USA’s coach said the resilience this team showed in a somewhat-meaningless game, where it would have been easy to pack it in early, shows a lot about the character of its players.
"We are proud of our team," Rolston said. "We certainly told them today that we were proud of not just the way they played, but of their efforts and their work habits, their chemistry and how they got along the whole tournament. Especially getting a win today and sticking together during such a tough tournament."
Frequently rubbing his head and looking dejected, Czech coach Marek Sykora lamented his team’s relative lack of success in this tournament — including the last-second lost in the final game.
"It was one of our stronger games against one of the stronger teams in this tournament," Sykora explained, through a translator. "Otherwise we have been pretty much blown up this tournament, especially against Canada in the first game and against the U.S. in the first two periods of our first game against them.
"I had higher expectations for this team — especially in the earlier games against Canada and the U.S. I also had higher expectations for this game — but we were competing for fifth place."
As a result of Day 9’s action, the Americans will go into the record books as the fifth-place team, followed by the Czechs, Finns, and Latvians. The Germans and Kazakh finished ninth and tenth, respectively, and have been relegated out of the tournament, to be replaced by the Austrians and Swiss.