by Mike Lundgren
Fans who took in Sunday’s start to a five-game exhibition series at the Huck Olson Memorial Civic Center for teams prepping for the 2016 International Ice Hockey Federation U18 World Championship were treated to an eye-opening display of talent and high-end play from young skaters who would be in the high school junior/senior age group in the United States.
Players from Russia, Slovakia, Switzerland and Finland combined quickness, speed, power and finesse into a package that held the fans’ attention even without the name recognition that accompanies the high school, college or pro games.
The first-day doubleheader opener matching Russia against Slovakia was particularly entertaining. The rivalry between the two countries was evident from the outset and the contest produced even more attention with a penalty shot, an overtime and finally a tie-breaking shoot-out that put the ticket price into a bargain-of-year category.
Russia jumped out to a 2-0 lead, fell behind 3-2, then tied it on a Maxim Marushev goal at 15:13 of the third period.
Most viewers figured that was it. There was no real reason to have a winner.
But the fans received a bonus when it was announced a 4-on-4 five-minute overtime would be played.
With no change in the score, another treat for the spectators: a shootout.
The final showdown went through four shooters on both sides. The only goal came from Slovakia’s third shooter, Samuel Bucek. It ended when Russia’s No. 4 shooter, Kirill Maximov, shot wide.
While the twinbill nightcap did not hold the same end-to-end excitement, Finland nevertheless made a statement with a 6-0 win over a Switzerland team that had impressed onlookers with its team speed in earlier open-to-the-public practice sessions.
Finland goalie Niilo Halonen registered the shutout and forward Sami Moilanen scored twice for the winners, who netted two goals in each period.
A single Monday night game found Denmark out-scoring Latvia 5-4. The winners led 2-1 after one period and had a 3-2 edge at the second break.
It was 5-3 before Latvia’s Emils Gegeris scored at 14:29 to make it a one-goal difference. But a late-game penalty prevented Latvia from pulling its goalie until the final seconds.
Tuesday games matching Switzerland against Slovakia and Latvia vs. the All-Stars (a collection of Minnesota high school players) completed the exhibition series.
The IIHF U18 World Championship will run April 14-24 in Grand Forks, N.D.