|Team Germany includes forward Constantin Braun, drafted in 2006 by the L.A. Kings.
In recent years, Germany’s national Under-20 team has shuttled between the top floor and a lower level on the international hockey elevator. At last year’s World Junior Championships in Leksand and Mora, Sweden, the Germans showed tremendous heart, but ultimately found themselves relegated back to the Division I tournament, despite a shocking overtime win over Team USA and a hard-working victory over Slovakia.
The Germans were encouraged by their overall progress, but the disappointment of nearly qualifying for the medal round only to fail in the relegation round has haunted them for nearly a year. After beating Team USA and Slovakia and staying competitive for the majority of their game against Canada, Team Germany regretted letting the opportunity slip away to stay at the elite level. The only way for any hockey program to continually progress is for its players to regularly compete against top-flight opposition, and there are also financial setbacks caused by relegation.
Germany received the consolation prize of hosting a bracket of the 2008 Division I World Championships. Held in the Bavarian town of Bad Tölz at Hacker Pschorr Arena (home of the Tölzer Löwen, a venerable German team now in the minor leagues), the tournament runs from Dec. 9 to 16. Team Germany will be the favorite for promotion to the 2009 World Junior Championships in Ottawa. The other teams in the field are Austria, Poland, Norway, Ukraine and Lithuania (promoted from Division II).
The last time Germany was in this position was the 2006 Division I WJC, where the Germans ran the table by going undefeated against Denmark, Japan, France, Ukraine and Slovenia.
Team Germany is capable of a similar run this year, but the coaching staff of Ernst Höfner, former NHL defenseman Uwe Krupp and former German national team goalie Klaus Merk have repeatedly the stressed that the team can’t afford to be overconfident.
“It’s very important for us that we go into each game with maximum concentration, because the tournament format does not permit you any slipups,” Höfner told the German Hockey Federation’s official site.
Scouts in the stands
The German team is the only one in its tournament bracket that has multiple NHL prospects and Euro elite league caliber players in the lineup. As a result, the NHL scouts in attendance have focused on the matches involving the host nation.
Among players at the tournament eligible for the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, the most highly touted hopeful is Team Germany left wing Jerome Flaake of the Cologne Sharks (Kölner Haie). The top-rated German draft prospect by NHL Central Scouting has dressed in 13 DEL games for the Sharks this year. A year ago, he scored 32 goals and 64 points in 34 games at the top German junior level.
Other prospects for the upcoming draft who made the U20 roster include Adler Mannheim junior right wing Toni Ritter (ranked fifth in Germany by Central Scouting), seventh-ranked Berlin Polar Bears (Eisbären) left wing prospect Patrick Geiger and 11th-rated Eisbären junior center Daniel Weiss. Defenseman Sören Sturm, Germany’s top-rated defensive prospect for the 2008 draft, did not make the U20 roster, but is likely to play in the U18 Worlds in April, where Germany will play at the elite level.
The German roster also features four players who have already been drafted by NHL clubs: goaltender Timo Pielmeier (selected by the San Jose Sharks in the third round of the 2007 Entry Draft), left wing Constantin Braun (selected by the Los Angeles Kings in the sixth round in 2006) and Toronto Maple Leafs defensive prospect Korbinian Holzer (a fourth-rounder in 2006) of the DEG Metro Stars.
Pielmeier is widely considered the best keeper in the Division I tournament. The St. John Fog Devils goalie was the Quebec League’s defensive player of the week earlier this season after coming over from the DEL’s Cologne Sharks (Kölner Haie). He gives his club a chance in every game, and has maintained a save percentage above 90 percent despite playing behind a so-so and allowing 3.37 goals per game in his first 26 appearances.
Braun suits up regularly for a first-place Eisbären Berlin team that is loaded with former NHL players. In 26 DEL games played to date this season, he has scored three goals (including a power-play goal), nine points and posted a plus-nine defensive rating despite limited ice time.
Holzer, who played on last year’s German U20 team at the World Juniors in Sweden, is a regular starter for DEG. In 27 games for the Metro Stars this season, he has five points (one goal), 36 penalty minutes and a plus-five rating.
Two other players of note on the German roster are forwards Maximilian Brandl and Elia Ostwald. Brandl plays in the Western Hockey League for Prince Albert (eight goals, 14 points in 29 games to date), but has not been drafted yet by an NHL club. The 19-year-old Ostwald draws attention because of his size. He stands 6-foot-7 and tips the scales at nearly 230 pounds -- and is still filling out. He has split time this season between Eisbären Berlin’s senior club in the DEL and its top junior team.
Big defenseman Denis Reul of the Lewiston MAINEiacs (chosen by the Boston Bruins in the fifth round of the 2007 draft) was originally chosen for the German team, but is not present for the tournament. Reul cuts an imposing presence with his 6-foot-4 frame, shaved head, perpetual scowl and ability to deliver punishing body checks. So far this season, he has six points (two goals), 48 penalty minutes and a plus-eight rating in 31 QMJHL games for Lewiston.
Toughest game at the end
Germany started the tournament against Lithuania. Sebastian Staudt got the nod in goal, but was barely tested in the 7-1 victory. Most of the match was spent in the Lithuanian end of the ice, as Staud faced just seven shots, to the 53 directed at Team Lithuania’s Ernestas Kielius.
Daniel Weiss got the Germans on the board first with a power-play goal at 5:58 of the first period. The Lithuanians tied the score on a power-play tally midway through the opening period, but the Germans surged ahead to stay on a goal by Arturs Kruminsch (assisted by Weiss) followed by a Patrick Hager stashing the puck home with just 28 seconds left in the period.
After a scoreless middle period, Germany turned the game into a rout with a four-goal barrage in the first seven and a half minutes of the final period. Brandl opened the floodgates with a goal just 19 seconds into the period, followed in quick succession by markers from Flaake, Constantin Braun and Frank Mauer.
The next evening, Germany ran roughshod over Poland. By the time the game was halfway over, the Germans had an 8-0 lead on the scoreboard and a 30-4 shot advantage on their way to an 11-0 win and 48-9 edge in shots.
Poland’s starting goalie, Tomasz Witkowski lasted just 12 minutes, as Mauer, Kruminsch and power forward Marcel Mueller scored even-strength goals. In the final minute of the period, Krumisch converted a Michael Endrass feed for his second goal of the game. Fourteen seconds later, he returned the favor, setting up Endrass for a goal.
In the second period, Hager and Tomas Oppenheimer scored early before Kruminsch completed a hat trick on the power play midway through the period. Stephan Daschner added a pair of goals in the final period to go along with Hager’s second of the game.
Germany still has games to play against Norway and Ukraine, but the toughest opponent in the field figures to be the Austrians, whom the Germans play in the tournament’s final match. The Austrians have convincingly dispatched Poland, 6-1, and blanked Norway by a 5-0 count. Barring a major upset, the Germans and Austrians will face off on Saturday for the right to play in Ottawa next year.