By Chris Ellis – IIHF.com
Great Britain – After an absence of two years, the Japanese U20 national team returns to the Division I thanks to an almost flawless week in Dumfries, Scotland, at the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship Division II Group A.
Five victories, with four in regulation time including a final-day win over hosts Great Britain, was enough to see Japan promoted from Division II Group A with 14 points out of a possible 15.
The week began in convincing fashion for Teruhiko Okita’s side as Tohi Kobayashi scored twice in a 6-1 victory over the Netherlands, who would go on and be relegated despite a thrilling final-day win over Estonia when they came from 4-1 down to win 6-5.
The Japanese weren’t always in control of the group though after they dropped a point in their second game against Romania. Kobayashi scored the game-winning goal 97 seconds into overtime to give his side a narrow 3-2 victory.
Hosts Great Britain led the way after three games with wins over Romania (3-2), Estonia (6-2) and the Netherlands (8-1); in a game which saw the tournament’s leading goal scorer Liam Kirk – who ended the competition with seven goals – grab a hat trick.
Japan kept up their winning record with a 5-1 victory over Korea before the dynamics of the group took a twist on game day four.
It was pretty routine for Japan in a 4-1 success over Estonia, but GB lost 5-4 to Korea after a penalty-shot shootout, so it was the Japanese who topped the group going into the final day.
Korea, who won promotion from Division II Group B last season and was the tournament’s lowest-seed team, beat Romania 5-2 – a result which would ultimately secure them the silver medal.
Japan was denied promotion in a final-day showdown with Lithuania in Estonia last year, but they never looked like suffering the same fate in the game for gold with Great Britain as goals from Masato Kume and Daiki Miura opened up a two-goal lead.
Kirk, who also led the tournament in points with 14 in five matches, pulled GB to within one, but Hayato Aiki and Daiki Miura stretched Japan’s lead to 4-1.
GB head coach Slava Koulikov took his timeout at 15:22 of the third period and lifted netminder Jordan Lawday for the extra skater and it paid dividends within 15 seconds as Cole Shudra scored.
Despite a further three minutes of constant pressure the British were unable to find a way past Eiki Sato – and Junki Shinoda wrapped the game up into the empty net.
It was agony for the hosts who had to settle for bronze and they missed out on promotion at the first time of asking after having come down from the Division IB, but Japan – who conceded the lowest goals in the tournament (seven) and scored the joint-highest (23) – makes a return to Division I in fine style.
Silver went to Korea, which finished the tournament in second place and the U20 World Championship program in 24th place overall – better than ever in the U20 category. Jong Min Lee and Juhyung Lee were the best scorers behind Kirk with six goals and four assists.