BASEL AND PORRENTRUY, Switzerland – Canada may not have been the favourites going into the tournament, but they were definitely one of them.
They had me fooled when they took the ice for the opening match in the 2023 U18 World Hockey Championships at Raiffeisen Arena in Porrentruy.
Sweden demolished them to the tune of an 8-0 final, and at no point in the 60 minutes of gameplay was it even close. Otto Stenberg opened the scoring barely 3:30 into this game, and it was 5-0 before the first intermission. Game over before it even started.
It was a tour de force performance by the Swedes, as comprehensive a victory as one can imagine. They controlled the run of play at evens. Their power play was dominant, contributing two goals to the cause. The penalty kill was flawless. Their efficiency off the charts. And they got a clean sheet in goal.
Perhaps best of all, it was Sweden’s best players who led the way. Noah Erliden was equal to every challenge. Axel Sandin-Pellikka had a five-point game (one goal and four assists) and Stenberg chipped in with four points of his own.
There was a lot of skepticism about this Swedish team’s ability to win it all coming into this tournament. It’s early, but they’ve done their part to quell it.
1. Axel Sandin Pellikka, D, Sweden (2023 NHL Draft)
The only way to describe Sandin Pellikka’s performance is as dominant. He showed the scouting world why he’s one of the top defencemen in this year’s draft, paving the way for Sweden with his five-point performance. He was on the ice for seven of the eight goals that Sweden scored.
“He is completely unfazed. It does not matter if it is the World Juniors, U18 Worlds or a U18 game in the Swedish North Division. He does the same things,” Swedish head coach Anders Eriksen said after the game.
With two assists on the power play – one a deflection on his shot and another from joining the rush – you really got a sense for the diversity of Sandin Pellikka’s skill set. His skating, his stick handling, it all rates among the very best in the tournament from a defenceman. You throw a great shot on top of it all, and you start to get a sense for why he’s a special prospect.
This season he has shown his skill in the SHL with five points in 22 games. As a U18-player, he also was the defenceman who tallied the most ice time for Sweden during the World Juniors.
“He is great, sometimes you are wondering if he is sleeping… but he is just a tremendous player”, Eriksén said.
For Sweden, there is now no doubt that Sandin Pellikka is one of their key players in this tournament. If he plays like this, then they’ll be hard to beat.
2. Adam Cedzo, C, Slovakia (2023)
Adam Cedzo led the way offensively for Slovakia, and Samuel Urban made several key stops to backstop their 3-2 shootout win against their geographic rival Czechia.
It’s Cedzo who takes home the second star in this dispatch of the U18 3 Stars. Two goals and a slick goal in the shootout were just too much to overlook.
With his speed and quick hands, he was a constant threat to score. Both of his goals came off of his lightning-fast release.
“He is a really good player. I like to play with him. We have played together a couple of times on the Slovakian national team, and on the power play, we have these cross-passes and we see each other well. I like him,” linemate Daniel Alexander Jencko, who assisted Cedzo on his first goal, said after the game.
Cedzo has been a force in league play during his draft year, too. He came to this tournament with 46 points in 39 games for Ocelari Trinec’s U20 squad.
Today we got to see why.
It will surely be fun to continue to follow Cedzo and his linemate Dalibor Dvorský for the rest of this tournament.
3. Ryan Leonard, LW, USA (2023)
For a second there, it looked like Latvia might give the Americans a run for their money. They dominated the run of play at evens in the first period, finishing with an 11-7 shot differential that, if anything, flattered Team USA. A break here or there and they could’ve just as easily entered the intermission with a one- or two-goal lead.
“I thought it took us a little while to really get into the game,” American head coach Dan Muse said after the game. “I thought our first period, it took a little bit of an adjustment there. I thought Latvia did a really good job there of making it hard for us, taking away a lot of time and space from us in the neutral zone. You could tell right away that they were going to make every entry hard, they were going to contest things there in the slot area. It took us a little while there to get adjusted.”
Then the power play got going. Cole Eiserman, a 2025-eligible prospect, opened the scoring with a wicked shot. It was Ryan Leonard who really got things going though. First, a catch-and-release goal; next a shot from the point that his linemate (here and with the USNTDP U18 squad) Will Smith deftly deflected for the goal.
“This is a line that’s been really good all year, so I don’t see any reason to change it up now,” Leonard said of the chemistry that he and Smith share. “And as you saw today, we had a couple of good plays, capitalized on them three or four times. It’s good fun playing with those guys.”
Muse seemed to share in that assessment, though he was eager to point out that they have other lines that can score, too.
“I think they’re a line that can dictate things, and that’s what we want,” Muse said. “I thought that the third goal, the first even strength goal that we scored, was another big moment in the game for us. That’s the type of line that they are. They can change the momentum of the game pretty quick. Luckily, we’ve got some other guys that can help with that, too. I thought that started to show as we went on tonight.
Good fun indeed. Leonard led his team in points with three by the final horn. He was the clear cut best player in the game for either team, honoured accordingly at the end of the game.
USA beats Latvia 7-1 in the opening game in Basel for the U18s.
Best player of the game:
Ryan Leonard 🇺🇸
Derals Uljanskis 🇱🇻
— J.D. Burke (@JDylanBurke) April 20, 2023
“I think it was good for the team and good for myself, just getting off to a good start in the tournament,” Leonard said. “I mean, we had an exhibition game, and I thought we played well in that, but the real hockey started today and we get off to a good start.”
As for what’s next?
“Come to practice tomorrow, tune up a couple of things that didn’t really go our way, watch some video, and get ready for Norway.”