There aren’t many voices calling for more nations at the World Juniors. After the 2020 tournament, though, such chatter could very well begin.
In fact, you can make a case that the 2020 relegation playoff involves its strongest pair of teams seen in years. Germany has built an impressive U20 resume in the past 2 cycles, beating out Latvia, France, Austria and Belarus in Division 1 before knocking-off the Czech Republic in its homeland a few days ago. Kazakhstan did not win a game in Group A but whiffed on glorious chances to prevail and earn a Q-Final bid, 12 months after stunning Denmark in a blow-out relegation series to survive on the elite level.
Kazakhstan and Germany will contest a best-of-3 playoff to determine top-10 World U20 survival through 2021, facing-off at Ostravar Aréna in Ostrava on Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday if necessary.
Are the 2 weakest teams meeting in the relegation round? Czechs would bristle at the notion that the tournament hosts have had it rougher than the Germans, but the Czech Republic squeaked into a Q-Final with Sweden by a single point. Russia defeated Canada by 6 goals in a Group B snoozer, but Russia faced a do-or-die scenario vs Germany on Tuesday and escaped a bizarre relegation match-up vs Kazakhstan with a win. The Germans led the Americans in the 2nd period of a round-robin game before falling 6-3.
Kazakhstan did not make nearly as much noise in Group A, but out-played Slovakia for much of a 3-1 loss, and produced a goal-per-game sniper in MHL marksman Maxim Musorov. Team KAZ skated with a veteran Swiss side for 2 periods in a 5-3 defeat, while the Slovaks fell behind Switzerland 0-4 in an eventual 7-2 romp by the favorites. Slovakia has allowed more goals than Kazakhstan (22 in total) and has clearly regressed since 2019.
Germany and Kazakhstan’s U20 teams have made great strides. Only 1 of the 2 will play next January in Alberta, thanks to the soaring competitive depth of the World Juniors.
The match-up will hinge on Germany’s ability to penetrate a better-than-average Kazakh defense corps. There’s nothing all that wrong with Kazakhstan’s offense – Oleg Boiko is holding up a hefty load as an 18-year-old top liner, and Musorov can bury point-blank shots on the power play. But the 3rd line is leaking chances-against, and Andrei Buyalsky is a morbid minus-3 with 1 point after basking in hype on his way to Třinec. Team KAZ is better-off playing for low final scores and building walls around GK Vladislav Nurek in the relegation series.
Nurek has allowed pedestrian, even silly goals in Group A competition. But he’s been solid and occasionally terrific when the blue line is keeping up, and stay-at-home studs like David Muratov, Tamirlan Gaitamirov, and undersized Madi Dikhanbek have been holding opposing forwards at bay for periods at a time.
Soviet-style defensemen are often criticized for not moving the puck or pinching-in enough, but despite a lack of points, Kazakh blue-liners have consistently fed Boiko and other attackers the puck in space, allowing for stretches of puck-control. Kazakhstan out-shot Slovakia in the 3rd period and held Finland and Switzerland to 34 SOG each.
Germany will bring plenty of scoring punch to the battle. 19-year-old Dominik Bokk has been everything Carolina Hurricane fans were hoping he would be, scoring nearly 2 points per game at the WJC following a cold start to his SHL season. Powerful and athletic at 6 feet and 2 inches, Bokk scored the winning goal against the host Czechs after leading the Germans’ mid-game surge vs Team USA.
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Tim Stutzle is another 6-footer who plays for Adler Mannheim of the DEL at a tender age. Stutzle has 3 assists at the 2020 WJC, and leads a brigade of 17-year-old southpaw forwards that includes John Peterka and Lukas Reichel (Robert Reichel is his uncle in case you’re wondering.)
Germany has ample ability on the blue line too. Moritz Seider is an early-blossoming 18-year old who’s notched 4 assists in 4 games, following-up a sizzling fall campaign for Grand Rapids of the AHL. The 6’4″ Seider anchors a defense corps that includes puck-movers like Philipp Mass and bruising young pros like Alexander Dersch.
So if the back end is so fantastic, and the teenage forwards of Deutscher Eishockey-Bund have the puck so often, why is Team Germany leaking goals-against? The senior German team has posed an interesting threat to top nations at the World Championships, but the WJC representatives were helpless against a Junior Red Machine that produced 3 power-play goals in the 2nd period of Tuesday’s 6-1 drubbing. German goalie Tobias Ancicka was punished by the Yanks after his team’s brief flourish against Team USA.
Hendrik Hane felt like an upgrade between the pipes in Germany’s 4-1 loss to Canada, but was only asked to make 23 saves in the contest.
It feels like some of the North American skaters are taking influence from the careful, precision offense of their large ice-savvy counterparts in Europe. Canada has been known for peppering the opposing GK at every turn in every IIHF event, but the Canadians and Americans solved Germany’s goaltenders without relying on crease scrambles.
Average goaltending might be the only thing holding Germany back from top-8 placement. Germans have scored 6 power play goals, good for T-4th at the WJC alongside the United States. Group B’s relegated squad is also deft at egging opponents to take penalties, putting the Maple Leaf in a bind with a crowded penalty box in the 3rd period. (By the way, how great is that drunken burlesque jazz music every time a player commits a WJC no-no and heads for the box? Let’s hope the Czechs keep it blaring through the medal round.)
Germany is going to score some goals in the relegation series, with the man-advantage if not at even strength. Suppose that Kazakhstan, yet to hold a lead at any point in the tournament, needs a goal to complete a desperate comeback in Game 1 or 2. If the secret to success is getting shots on net against struggling German netminders, will the Kazakhs set their post-USSR passing streak aside and slap rubber at the net for a rebound?
Game 1 of the Men’s U20 relegation playoff begins at 4 AM EST on Thursday morning.
Photo ATTN: Team Kazakhstan Instagram