The Polish U18 squad was given a second chance at Division 1 after initially being relegated last year. This is due to the IIHF suspensions of Belarus and Russia. A new head coach was installed to lead the U18 squad as longtime PHL and Belarus national team coach Andrei Gusov took the reins just before the hockey season began. Last year felt like a golden opportunity to make some noise with so many good young stars who played abroad, but that team failed to gain any traction defensively or in net. Now the 2023 squad was almost 100% talent playing with Polish clubs. Could this new combination find a way to melt together and keep Poland in Division 1?
Poland started off the tournament with a strong foe in gold contender Austria. Poland played very well in this game, and I was more than impressed as they took down Austria with a final score of 3-1. Austria was the much better team on paper, but Poland played the game perfectly to cause the upset. They drove their opponent to take bad-angle shots and not give them much up in middle. On offense, Poland could draw penalties, capitalize on the powerplay, and generate a few odd-man rushes for scoring chances. Simply put, if Poland wanted to do well in the tournament, it would come down to their ability to do just what they did against Austria. Poland instead went out and did almost the opposite in their next few games. Slovenia overmatched and dispatched them with a 6-2 final score. A strong performance versus Italy only resulted in a 1-0 shutout loss. Then against the two opponents promoted from Division 2, Poland played their worst with another 6-2 loss, this time to South Korea, before ending the tournament with late heartbreak and a 2-1 loss to Estonia. They started the tournament with one big thrill, but it was all downhill from there.
The games against Austria and Slovenia are very similar on paper. In both games, Poland scored 3 goals while allowing exactly 42 shots. The big difference between the two is the opponent’s goal total. Austria scored once, while Slovenia scored six times. Was one game just a great start from Tyczyński, and the other a dud from him?
There are the two shot charts back-to-back. Austria is on the left, and the Slovenia game is on the right. In the game against Austria, Poland forced a lot more bad angle or far-away shots that were much easier to save. Against Slovenia, the opposing team could just do whatever they wanted in front of the net. I’m not sure how Poland played these two games back-to-back so differently. Especially in the end, Austria was the team that took home gold.
The Italian Game
The game against Italy is a really interesting piece of hockey to me. On the surface, it is easy to say Poland was the better team and just couldn’t finish. They controlled the puck more and led in the shot department by a decent margin of ten shots, 33-23 total. Poland just ran into the brick wall that is Italian goalie and NHL draft prospect Damain Clara. I think it paints the larger issue this group had thought-out the tournament with their inability to finish and generate high dangerous scoring chances. They had a large reliance on the powerplay, and odd-man rushes for goals, which is a lot of hockey. But against weaker opponents, you want to see their ability to gain the zone, cycle the puck, and produce on five-on-five. Poland was the worst scoring team at the tournament shooting just 7.2% on 125 shots. I think this is the result of Poland not developing many dynamic or creative offensive players.
Undoubtedly, the MVP of the tournament for Poland was goaltender Igor Tyczyński. In his first IIHF appearance, he carried team Poland and was a stud in the net. His 41-save performance against Austria was head-turning. He carried that strong play throughout the tournament and finished with a .918 save percentage. He followed this up with great matches against Italy and Estonia. Now there was the matter of the Slovenia and South Korea games, where Poland allowed 8 goals between the two with him in the net. I don’t put that on him in the Slovenia game, as Poland gave him no help, and Slovenia could just walk to the front of the net whenever they wanted. Versus South Korea, he did let in two quick goals and got the early pull after less than 10 minutes of action. They were not great goals to let in, but Poland didn’t offer him much help in the lead-up. Overall, the young goalie was a bright spot for Poland in a dark tournament. He has quickly become Poland’s top goaltending prospect, in my opinion.
Maksymilian on the Map
Poland’s best forward in the tournament to me was Maksymilian Dawid. He led the team in points with four. He was especially effective in the game against Austria, where he was named player of the game, scoring twice and assisting on one. He later had a nice goal in the game versus Slovenia. He showed a lot of confidence with the puck and a good ability to rush up the ice. His play in the neutral zone was especially impressive, and he gained the offensive zone pretty easily. He had a lot of chemistry with the Hofmann brothers. There were a few defensive lapses, but overall, it was a great tournament.
What is next?
This was the first year under Gusov, and it’s a mixed bag for a grade. The team is being relegated to Division 2 and will have to fight its way back up. It will be interesting to see if Poland retains Gusov for the following season. We saw both the high of what Gusov and his style can do and the team’s larger problems. The U18 squad desperately needs some stability, and it takes over a year to build it up. The Austria game was one of the strongest games I have seen a Polish team play at any level. Italy and Estonia were solid games as well, despite the lack of finishing. The Slovenia and South Korea games were beyond ugly, and the team appeared to have fallen apart. This was a veteran team, and 12 players were born in 2005 and will be aged off the roster. The only major returning player is Igor Tyczynski. There could be reinforcements, with Hubert Szarzynski, Matthew McGovern, and Patryk Zubek all being eligible.
- Jakub Hofman had a good tourney and was great with Dawid. He led the squad with 14 shots, recording a goal and two assists. He got unlucky with some shots I thought were sure goals.
- Karol Sobecki had a really solid tournament and worked well as the leading defenseman on the powerplay.
- Poland allowed 30 goals at the tournament last year, which was cut down to just 16 this year. They also somehow scored two fewer goals, finishing with nine after scoring 11 in 2022.
- Krystian Lisowski showed a lot of good flashes in this tournament, but I was hoping to see more. He finished second on the team in shots with 13.
- Former PHL defensemen and current Toruń assistant coach Łukasz Podsiadło made his IIHF coaching debut serving in the same role.
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