For the first time since 1998 Germany will play back-to-back U20 World Championships in the top division. The black-red-and-gold team finished the event in ninth place after beating Latvia 5-2.
“It’s a phenomenal feeling that we remain in the top division. It’s my 14th U20 World Championship and the first time is always something special,” said German head coach Ernst Höfner.
“We had a very tough beginning with playing Canada, Russia, the U.S. and also Finland in the relegation round. But we focused on becoming better game by game and on the opponents we are realistically able to beat.”
Germany had just returned to the top division for Ufa after winning the Division I tournament on home ice last season to reach a quick comeback after the relegation in Buffalo 2011. Next year they will travel to Malmö, Sweden, for their second straight participation among the elite nations.
Latvia managed to play four out of five years in the U20’s top division against all odds, but this time the team of record national team player Leonids Tambijevs finished in tenth and last place. Latvia will be replaced by Norway next season.
The Latvian players were more than disappointed and didn’t want to talk to the media, but goalkeeper Elvis Merzlikins, who didn’t play, came out as one of two players representing his team.
“Of course we are very disappointed. Nobody wanted to lose this game,” he said. “We had too many penalties. We wanted to win so much that we took too many penalties. Now we have to battle to get back to the top division next year.”
Leon Draisaitl, the son of former German Olympian Peter Draisaitl, was the hero and dominating player for the “eagles”. Born in 1995, the forward who transferred from Adler Mannheim to the WHL’s Prince Albert Raiders in summer brought with him skill and mass that made him hard to stop for the Latvian defencemen. He scored two goals for Germany and assisted on two others.
“Our goal is always to stay in the top division. We did that so everything is good,” the 17-year-old forward said. “We didn’t play that well in the first period, but we were pushing hard in the second period and played well in the third.”
In the beginning it looked more promising for the Latvians. Same as the day before against Slovakia they kept up well and Lauris Rancevs opened the scoring at 15:25 of the first period in an odd-man situation before German goalkeeper Marvin Cüpper.
„In the first period we didn’t capitalize on two breakaways and Latvia scored on the other side,” German coach Höfner said. “That was a bitter pill to swallow, but after the second period we played with more power, we created more pressure and scored the goals.”
Indeed, it was mostly the Germans, who created scoring chances in the second period – and this from the very beginning. Draisaitl won the opening face-off and Tobias Rieder tied the game six seconds later.
“I told them we have to stick to our game plan and shouldn’t make ourselves mad and focus on winning the second period,” Höfner said.
The German top line continued to cause trouble for the Latvian defence around goalkeeper Ivars Punnenovs. Midway through the period, Draisaitl’s power-play goal brought Germany its first lead of the game and with four minutes left in the middle frame Germany doubled the gap when Christian Kretschmann scored following a couple of rebounds.
Draisaitl added his second goal at 5:36 of the third period.
“I definitely have to say thank you to my linemates; they made it easy for me,” said Draisaitl. “The first one was a great pass from Dominik Kahun, I just had to tip it in and for the second one I got a nice pass from Tobias Rieder. Once we scored the 1-1 goal we were on a roll and it became easier for us.”
Tambijevs took out his goalkeeper early during a power play to play 6-on-4, but the little hope the Latvians had was destroyed with Sebastian Uvira’s shot into an empty net with 4:32 left to play in regulation time.
Arturs Kuzmenkovs scored Latvia’s second goal of the game with 1:28 left for the final score of 5-2.
“Every World Championship starts from scratch,” Draisaitl said about the next World Juniors in Malmö. “Our goal will again be to stay in the top division.”
The outlook is positive. Three players including first-line forwards Draisaitl and Kahun as well as Frederik Tiffels were born in 1995 and also 1994-born goalkeeper Cüpper will be eligible to return.
(Nathan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)