Category: World Championships (page 1 of 4)

Japan women’s ice hockey team secures promotion to top flight

By Japan Times

Japan beat Austria 4-1 for its fourth victory at the second-tier women’s ice hockey world championships on Thursday, earning promotion to the elite division.

The Japanese team, ranked seventh in the world, faced 11th-ranked Austria with both teams knotted at three wins each atop the Group A competition table.

But with the win Japan got separation, making it 12 points from four wins to secure promotion with one game remaining in the six-team tournament at Merkur Arena in Graz, Austria.

Japan had secured promotion to the top division in 2013 after finishing with a 5-0 record in the second-tier competition, but lost all five games in the elite-division world championships last year and returned to the second tier.

“We stayed calm and maintained our pace throughout the game. I felt at ease watching the third period,” said Japan head coach Takeshi Yamanaka.

Veteran forward Hanae Kubo opened the scoring for Japan with a goal 11 minutes into the first period to convert for the first time in the tournament, and added a second 3 minutes later to put Japan well on the way to the win. Rui Ukita provided assists on both goals to finish match equal with Kubo’s two-point game-high total.

Japan goalkeeper Nana Fujimoto went the distance and fended off 18 of 19 shots on goal but it was a different story at the other end. Austria starter Theresa Hornich had a horror game, letting in all four goals on 12 shots in 27 minutes of ice time. A second-period change to Jessica Ekrt slowed the Japanese, with the replacement stopper unbeaten on 16 shots on goal.

Captain Chiho Osawa, who had three shots on goal, had only good things to say about the way her team played in the April 15-21 tournament, which also serves as a qualifier for the 2018 world championships.

“I’m glad we earned promotion. This is good news. We were able to win points at crucial moments and extend our lead (against Austria). We controlled the puck a lot more smoothly than we did in other games,” said Osawa.

The Pinter sisters

By Henrik Manninen –

Having already survived a relegation battle this season, Lili and Hanna Pinter’s experiences from Sweden’s top league will stand them in good stead as Hungary aims to spring a surprise in the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A.

Newcomers at this level, Hungary is competing in neighbouring Austria this week with a close-knit unit of players battling against higher-ranked opponents.

With four pair of siblings on the Hungarian roster, playing for their country has turned into a family affair. First choice netminder Aniko Nemeth and blueliner Bernadett Nemeth are twins, sisters Zsofia and Kinga Jokai-Szilagyi both chase goals, goalie Vanessa deputizes in the net and her older sibling Tifani Horvath is a forward, while Lili and Hanna Pinter form an offensive threat on Hungary’s second line.

Like the Vas duo Marton and Janos on the men’s team, who both with varied success benefited from spells in Sweden, the Pinter pair is hoping that their experiences gained in one the strongest women’s hockey leagues in the world can contribute to the continued progress for their national team program.

Born in November 1996, older sibling Lili was a part of the Hungarian generation who during the 2011/12 season lifted their U18 national team from nowhere and straight into the top division. She played a key role when Hungary’s U18 team competed in the top division for two seasons and was joined by her younger sister, Hanna, into the junior national team ahead of the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 Women’s World Championship on home ice in Budapest, which ended up with relegation.

Having tasted life at the highest level, many from that successful generation have since continued their development abroad. Today, half of the players on the current Hungarian roster are playing their hockey in countries such as Russia, Germany, USA and Sweden.

With the Pinters opting for Scandinavia, it was Lili who first took the plunge into uncharted waters. Ahead of the 2015/16 season she signed up for SDE HF, based in the Northern Stockholm region and a club priding itself for honing talent at youth and women’s level. Having now spent her last two seasons in Sweden’s top women’s league, SDHL, Lili has after an initial settling in period reaped the rewards of her hard work.

“Off ice is really hard and the game was also much harder both physically and mentally. With the pace of the game being so much faster, my vision has improved and so has my ability to solve difficult situations out on the ice,” she said on life in Swedish hockey.

Spreading the word of her experience in Sweden, Lili was reunited with her younger sister ahead of this season. Hanna, born in March 1998, signed up for SDE HF where the siblings were part of a multinational team with players from five different countries. Helene Astrom, the club’s team manager, describes the Pinter siblings in glowing terms as players who both are blessed with good shooting ability, pace and positive attitude in abundance.

While Hanna decided to return to Hungary during the second half of the season, Lili was an integral part of the SDE HF team that battled hard in the SDHL as the top division’s underdog.

“It is a challenge to be at our best, to show them that we can play at that level against teams like for instance Lulea. You are playing against very tough opponents, but at the same you try to keep up to speed with them. I felt that especially the speed and our overall game has been improving and we are getting closer to our opponents,” said Lili Pinter, who can look back on a successful end to her club season where a place in next season’s SDHL was ensured on 19th March.

With the focus now having shifted to national team duties, Hungary entered Division IA as the lowest-seeded team. A narrow opening-day 1-0 loss against favourite Japan showed that the Central Europeans are not to be brushed aside lightly. Having then recorded their first win, 2-0 against Denmark during Day 3, Hungary has destiny in their own hands as France and Norway await in the final two rounds.

“It is a tournament we are capable to finish at any place. It will be important not to lose our self-confidence and I think it will be very tough, but we are capable of winning each of those games,” said Lili Pinter.

In the meantime Austria and Japan went on with a 3-0 and it will be one of those two teams that will earn promotion. The teams will go head to head on Thursday evening.

First gold for Luxembourg

By Ivan Tchechankov –

Luxembourg, one of the smallest countries in the world, was triumphant after the final game of the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division III. The Winter Palace in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia was voiced with chants and emotional outbursts from the winner’s locker room for long after the last buzzer and the closing ceremony. And it was a well-deserved celebration.

For the first time in history Luxembourg won an IIHF event. Beating Bulgaria for the Division III gold also means Luxembourg will play at Division II for the first time since 2004 when the tea was relegated.

In the final for the gold medals Luxembourg defeated the host Bulgaria 10-4 as three players had two goals and one assist (Benny Welter, Miroslav Mosr and Thierry Beran) and the goalie Philippe Lepage made 57 saves!

“We came here to win it all. We believed that we can do it and were fighting for the whole 60 minutes. For Luxembourg this is unbelievable success. Our goal for next year is to keep our place in Division II Group B,” said Petr Fical, the jubilant head coach of Luxembourg, after the closing ceremony.

Eight teams were supposed to participate in the tournament using a new format with two round-robin groups followed by the cross-over semi-finals and placement games. Unfortunately Bosnia & Herzegovina withdrew from the championship just a few days before the start of the tournament leaving Group A with just three teams. The schedule was played as planned, however all Bosnia & Herzegovina games were count as forfeited (5-0 win for the opposing team).

Bulgaria finished first in Group A with wins over Chinese Taipei (3-0) and Hong Kong (10-3) and Luxembourg was the winner of Group B after defeating the United Arab Emirates (17-0), Georgia (6-4) and South Africa (3-1). In the semifinals the hosts beat against Georgia, 9-3, and Luxembourg routed Hong Kong, 8-1.

This was just the second competition in Division III for Bulgaria since the introduction of the new IIHF categorization in 2001. The previous one was in 2014, when the tournament was in Luxembourg and Bulgaria was undefeated and gain back its place in Division II. In the first day of that event Bulgaria beat the hosts in a roller-coaster. Luxembourg was leading 4-3 and 5-4 after getting back from 0-3. In the end Bulgaria won 8-5. There was just one more match-up between the two countries on the men’s level in the past World Championships – a 17-2 win for Bulgaria in 2002 in the Division II Group B. So the expectations of the crowd of 950 spectators at the Winter Palace were very high for a home success, but there were some concerns regarding Bulgarian defence.

The start was quite a positive one for Bulgaria’s “Lions” as Miroslav Vasilev scored at 2:15 after a great pass from Stanislav Muhachev. Thierry Beran tied the score two minutes later, but Alexei Yotov and Georgi Iskrenov tallied for 3-1 lead at 15:15. Once again a defensive mishap led to a Luxembourg’s goal just 32 seconds later. The first period finished 3-3 and the turnaround continued in the second as Kai Linster scored on a power play to give Luxembourg its first lead in the game, 4-3.

“I don’t know why, but our team was tired already in the second period. They didn’t have energy anymore. What are the reasons for that? Maybe they are not used to play so many games in a week or train so hard. In the same time Luxembourg played smart, they were just getting the puck out of their zone, without any risks and were waiting for opportunities. It’s a disappointing night for sure. We had many chances, but couldn’t score,” said Daniel Cuomo, the head coach for the host nation.

Bulgaria had its chance to tie on a penalty shot after Ronny Scheier, the captain of the Luxembourger team for the 13th straight World Championship, was penalized for falling on the puck in the goal crease. In this crucial moment there was a long delay as the official didn’t let the shot to be taken by Muhachev. In the end Ivan Hodulov took the responsibility, but couldn’t beat Lepage, who made 24 saves just in the second period and had the game of his life.

Three minutes later Yotov scored after a crisp breakaway pass from Muhachev, when their team was shorthanded and the crowd was enthusiastic again. But not for long as Luxembourg finished the period with a 7-4 lead after three more goals by Benny Welter, Miroslav Mosr and Francois Schons. The last one in this sequence was on a two-man advantage following consecutive penalties to Iskrenov and Muhachev.

“Mentally we were very strong. We didn’t panic at all after being two goals behind. It was very important to comeback quick and we were able to do it. The key moment was when we scored the sixth and the seventh goal. These goals broke the opponent down,” said Czech-born Petr Fical, who played for Germany at the 2006 Olympic Games and at World Championships in the period 2005-08. Bulgaria’s coach Cuomo had the same opinion: “The 6-4 goal was the crucial one. I could see the effect that it had on the bench, the body language of the players.”

There were small signs of hopes in the first part of the third period, but Bulgaria couldn’t score on two power plays and then everything went downfall with new ostentatious examples of lack of discipline.

“Nowadays hockey is built on good defencemen, who can carry the puck. It’s not a secret that we have problems in this regard. We have veteran defencemen who are not in great shape. On top of that when something goes wrong, we are losing the whole structure, we indulge in disappointment and the penalties are coming,” explained Cuomo.

At 51:06 Mosr capitalized on another two-man advantage and just 104 seconds later Thierry Beran made it 9-4. The last goal was scored on an empty net by his father Robert Beran, who finished the historic journey with most points (19, 6+13) for Luxembourg and was voted as the best forward of the tournament. The 47-year-old Robert Beran hails from Slovakia but has been based in Luxembourg since the early 1990s and was even the national team’s head coach at the 2000 World Championship D-Pool.

“It was a wonderful week for me and Luxembourg hockey. To share this moment with my son and so many players that I had coached from the scratch is just a dream come true,” said Robert Beran, who works in a construction company besides being a coach and a player. He has also a younger son, who is 15 years old. It’s one more motivation for Robert to keep playing: “Soon we will be able to complete a full Beran forward line for the national team.“

“To be honest, I expected a closer game, but today we played great hockey, great defence too. The key for us was the team effort. The whole week we had awesome team work, we worked hard for each other – on the ice, outside of the ice. It was unbelievable experience. Our general manager Alain Schneider did a great job. He organized two exhibition games and got the team together earlier. And we won even though there are some players who couldn’t come to Sofia, because they are working and couldn’t take a leave-of-absence from their jobs,” explained Fical, who is in his second year as a Luxembourg’s head coach.

So far the best showing from the small nation (570,252 population; 399 registered players) in Division III play had been a second-place finish in 2003, last year they finished fourth. But in 2003 there were just three teams in the group and Luxembourg won against Turkey and lost to New Zealand. From the 77 IIHF members only Andorra, Iceland and Liechtenstein have a smaller population than Luxembourg.

It’s interesting to know that Luxembourg became an IIHF member on 23 March 1912, along Sweden, as the 10th and 11th members since its founding. The World Championship debut was almost on the day 80 years later though and the second participation came in 2000. On 21 March 1992 Luxembourg lost its first official game in Johannesburg against host South Africa, 23-0.

Since 2002 Luxembourg is a regular part of the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship program in the men’s category and in the last 10 years had eight bronze medals in the Division III and two fourth-place finishes. In Sofia, Luxembourg not only had its first gold medal in any tournament but set national records for wins (5) and goals allowed in one tournament (10).

Slovakia bounces back

By Andy Potts –

Slovakia’s women recovered from last year’s relegation to take gold in the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship Division I Group B. A comprehensive 8-0 victory over Latvia in Friday’s decisive game saw Andrej Schober’s team secure top spot and an immediate return to Division IA.

For Latvia, it was another season of frustration. Last time, in Italy, the Baltic nation came second behind Hungary; this time, despite remaining in contention until the final day, it was again unable to secure top spot and promotion.

Friday’s showdown between Slovakia and Latvia also promised to be a shootout between Nicol Cupkova and Liga Miljone, the two players in contention for the leading goalscorer prize. The pair came into the game tied on five goals apiece, although Latvia’s Miljone was four points up thanks to her handful of assists throughout the tournament. With two goals and three assists, Cupkova ended the competition as the top goal- and point-scorer.

The 24-year-old, who plays for Agidel Ufa in Russia’s Women’s Hockey League, wasted little time in moving ahead on the goal tally, opening the scoring in the fifth minute. Iveta Fruhauf forced a turnover out on the boards, Cupkova took over the loose puck and rushed to the net to beat Kristiana Apsite from close range.

That set the tone for the game. Slovakia was clinical when opportunities came its way; Latvia struggled to carve out clear chances of its own. Cupkova was an influential presence on offence throughout the game. The second goal, scored by Viktoria Ihnatova in the 27th minute, began with Cupkova’s rush round the back to stretch the Latvian penalty kill. Two unassisted goals followed, with Cupkova’s linemate Jana Kapustova adding a third before Fruhauf thumped in a fourth from the blue line to put the outcome beyond doubt with almost half the game still to play.

Cupkova got her second of the night – and her seventh of the competition – to make it 5-0 before the second intermission. She showed some lovely skills to get past her opponent, only for Apsite’s pads to block the initial effort. But the puck bounced for Kapustova whose pass found Cupkova wide open at the back door.

Two further assists in the final stanza lifted Cupkova to 7+4=11 points, topping the scoring for the tournament. Ihnatova and Lucia Drabekova were the beneficiaries of her helpers as Slovakia’s lead grew. Viktoria Maskalova added an eighth to wrap up the scoring in the 56th minute, while goalie Romana Kiapesova had 14 saves for her first shut-out of the tournament.

Kazakhstan finished second, separating Slovakia and Latvia. This was an improvement on its bronze from 12 months earlier. The silver medallist had a frustrating tournament, defeating both of the teams that contested the decisive Friday showdown, but missing out on a shot at gold due to a slow start that saw losses against China (0-2) and Poland (3-4 in a shoot-out) in the opening two games before Alexander Maltsev’s team hit its stride.

The battle to avoid last place and potential relegation went down to the final game, with host nation Poland needing to beat China in regulation to move up from last place. The Chinese, looking to capitalize on a sudden flurry of interest in ice hockey in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics, had other ideas. Di Deng dominated as her team fired in four unanswered second period goals to secure fourth place ahead of Italy and Poland.

Olympics give new life to Chinese ice hockey

By Alistair McMurran –

The Olympic Games has been the spark that has lifted Chinese ice hockey to new heights and helped them gain promotion to the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division II Group A.

China remained unbeaten and was the dominant team at the week-long tournament at the Paradice Ice Rink in the Auckland region in New Zealand.

“China is staging the Olympic Winter Games in 2022,” head coach Jiang Hu said. “To play well at the Olympics we need to put in a lot of effort and improve our team to a very high level. That is very important to us at this time.”

Winning the tournament, China is ranked 35th overall in the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship program and has a lot to improve to be able to compete at an Olympic tournament.

At the Division II Group B level it worked well. In the round-robin competition China beat Israel 5-2, New Zealand 5-2, DPR Korea 8-3, Turkey 7-2 and Mexico 3-2.

The final points were: China 15, New Zealand 12, Israel 9, Mexico 3, DPR Korea 3, Mexico 3, Turkey 3.

The gold medal and promotion to the higher grade was important to China.

“We have put in a lot of effort in training and in all the games,” Hu explained. “The team management and the players are very happy about this and are very satisfied.

“We have received a lot of respect from our opponents, and that is very pleasant for us.”

There is a lot of excitement in China about the 2022 Winter Olympics and the national and local governments are backing the national ice hockey programme.

“Because we are holding the Olympics all the local programmes and the local and national hockey teams are being supported,” Hu said.

“The Olympic Games is bringing more attention to ice hockey.”

But the Chinese head coach and his team are very aware of the responsibility that rests on their shoulders.

“We need to perform to bring rewards back to our local government,” Hu said.

There is little doubt that Chinese hockey is on a steep rising curve. Between 2009 and now the team was ranked 34th to 38th and hopes to get back to higher levels.

Beijing made its mark on world sport when the 2008 Summer Olympics were held in China. Two of these arenas will be used for ice hockey in 2022 one of them already hosting new KHL team Kunlun Red Star.

“There are a lot of other good players outside this team training inside China,” Hu said. “Players are putting more effort into their work to get selected in national teams and they are very enthusiastic about this.”

It is the support from national and local government that has played an important role in China’s improvement.

“To help us the local government has organised a lot of competitions. We have never had this type of support before,” Hu said.

China’s biggest tests at the championships came in the first two games against Israel and New Zealand. They won both games 5-2.

There was a similar pattern in both games with the scores level at two-all after two periods. China then took control to score three more goals in the final period.

The Ice Blacks were fired up for the game and scored the first goal in each of the first two periods. China only equalized by scoring on power plays at the end of both periods.

“New Zealand was the toughest game for us and gave us a good fight,” Hu said. “But our players did not give up even when we got behind.”

China plays an efficient game at speed and is skilled at making the power plays count. Four goals were scored from power plays against DPR Korea and three against Turkey.

There was a lot of width in the Chinese play and their forwards move at speed to pressure the defence. They had the ability to strike quickly.

During this tournament the Chinese were more physical than they used to be. They played with more intensity and have the ability to move quickly from defence into the attacking zone.

The player statistics illustrate the depth in the Chinese squad. Jiachang Boa, the face-off leader with 76.92 percent, was the only Chinese player to top the list in any key area. But there were enough others in the top-10 to give China the edge.

The highest placed were goalkeeper Zehao Sun in second place with 136 saves from 148 shots at goal and defenceman Mingxi Yang with five scoring points.

Another key Chinese player was captain Ling Chen who was third on the table with four assists.

The Chinese goal scoring leaders were Cheng Zhang and Hao Zhang with four goals and two assists.

The other key face-off player in the team was Rudi Ying, who was the scoring leader at the U20 World Championship Division III that was also held in New Zealand, at Dunedin, with 19 points and was named the best forward by the directorate then. He plays for Kunlun Red Star in the Kontinental Hockey League.

New Zealand

The Ice Blacks probably had its best prepared team since it won the Division III title in 2009. But it was up against a Chinese team that has Olympic aspirations.

“It was one of the best teams we’ve had in my time,” captain Bert Haines, who first played for New Zealand in 2010, said. “We were well prepared and this was shown by the way we matched China for 60 minutes. It was the top ranked team.

“We could have won. There were just a couple of plays that opened up that game. It was much tighter than the final score would indicate.

“We came back well to beat Israel and that was a must win game for us. We were able to dictate play for most of that game.”

The Ice Blacks beat Turkey 4-1, lost to China 5-2 and beat Israel 5-2, Mexico 4-2 and DPR Korea 8-1.

The games against Israel and Mexico were hard fought and brought out the best in the maturing Ice Blacks team under new head coach Maru (Stacey) Rout.

The gold medal had been conceded to China after they beat the Ice Blacks in the second game. The next two games against Israel and Mexico defined New Zealand’s place at the championships.

The team wanted the silver medal and came out with all guns blazing in the first period against Israel and led 3-0 after just 15 minutes.

It was the game in which 19-year-old Jacob Ratcliffe came of age and scored a hat trick of goals. He scored six goals and shared top spot on the championship table.

Ratcliffe has jet propulsion on skates and this enables him to jump on any chance to score goals. He has the potential to become a super star.

He grew up in Canterbury and was in the Red Devils team that won the New Zealand League in 2013 and 2014. He made his senior international debut last year.

Mexico caused the Ice Blacks some grief when they came back from a two goal deficit in the first period to be just one goal behind at the end of the second period.

It was Ratcliffe who came to the rescue by scoring his fifth tournament goal with just five minutes left to give the Ice Blacks a two goal cushion.

The Ice Blacks went to Melbourne for pre-tournament training and honed their skills with games against the Melbourne Ice and Northern Mustangs Australian league teams.

“The biggest benefit of going to Melbourne was pre-tournament games against teams that compared in skill with the teams we faced at the world champs,” Haines said.

“We were a new team coming together and learning new systems and were able to try out our systems and use them.”

Haines instilled his high principles into the Ice Blacks.

“Everyone embraced the fact that it is an honour to represent your country at home. We were a great group of guys who came together in a supportive culture.”

It was a big step up by a New Zealand side that had finished fourth at Mexico City last year.

Head coach Maru Rout likes winning and coached the Canterbury Red Devils to three titles from 2012 to 2014.

He has co-opted Anatoli Khorosov, who followed him at the Red Devils, to be assistant coach of the Ice Blacks. Khorosov brings a strong style of Russian and European hockey to the table. It is fast passing and utilizes the whole ice

Rout used to like the more physical North American style of hockey but he now uses a mixed combination of physical and European skills with fast passing and shooting.

The best New Zealand player was Rick Parry who topped the goal keeper list by making 125 saves and conceding just nine goals.

His best performances came in the key games against Israel when he conceded just two goals from 39 attempts and against Mexico when he saved 30 shots and conceded just two goals.

Parry, 29, has been a regular in the Ice Blacks since 2008 and now plays for the Adelaide Adrenaline in the Australian Ice Hockey League.

Two experienced 26-year-olds played a key role in the New Zealand forwards. Chris Eaden was third equal on the table with four assists and Paris Heyd hit three goals.

Heyd played a power forward role on defence and had the ability to take control of a game. He is fast on skates and skilled on the breakaway.

Haines and Andrew Hay were solid defenders who made life easier for Parry in goal.


Israel had to be satisfied with the bronze medal when it was beaten by China and New Zealand with scores of 5-2 in the first and third games. It retained the third spot it filled at Mexico City last year.

Israel beat Mexico 6-2, DPR Korea 9-2 and Turkey 5-0.

The player statistics show that Israel had some elite players but the big problem for American coach Derek Eisler was the lack of depth.

Israel has compulsory military training for two years and eight months and it robs the sport of promising players before they reach their prime.

The best player for Israel at the championship was Elie Klein, 27, who was the scoring leader with 11 points. He scored four goals and had seven assists. He was top of the assist ladder and was runner-up in the face-off table with 76.47 percent.

Ilya Spektor, 20, one of the youngest players, was the joint leading goal scorer with six and was third on the scoring table with nine points.

Daniel Mazour scored a hat trick in the final-round win against Turkey to finish third on the goal-scoring table with five.

Other key players for Israel were defender Michael Kozevnikov and Roey Aharonovich, who is the first Israeli to play in the NCAA College system in the United States. He will play for Neumann University in Pennsylvania. The men’s ice hockey team competes at the Division III.

Outside the medals

The three other teams only gained one win and their play was noted for its inconsistency. They just did not have the depth to have back-to-back top performances.

Mexico’s only win came in its first game against DPR Korea, 5-1. But they had strong performances in its last two games to lose narrowly to New Zealand and China.

Mexico lost 3-2 in its final game and held China scoreless in the final period.

The best player was Luis Alberta de la Vega, who was fourth equal on the goal scoring table and filled the same spot on the defencemen scoring table with four goals.

Goalie Alfonso de Alba made 120 saves and only conceded 13 goals to be third on the table.

DPR Korea looked to be a major threat when it thumped Turkey 11-3 with blitzkrieg tactics. Chun Rim Hong scored a hat trick of goals and Pong Il Ri was runner-up on the assists table with five and topped the defencemen’s scoring table with six points.

The young Turkish team that included 13 players from this year’s championship-winning under-20 team could not match it with the big boys and finished last and will be demoted to Division III next year.

The one bright spot was the 1-0 win over Mexico in the third round. Its best player was goalie Tolga Bozaci.

The Directorates best players of the championships were:

Goaltender: Rick Parry (New Zealand).
Defenceman: Michael Kozevnikov (Israel).
Forward: Hao Zhang (China).

Romania rising

By Henrik Manninen –

A disciplined Romanian team barged ahead to win the top spot at the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division II Group A on home ice in Galati.

In front of an atmospheric home crowd of 3,200 the hosts emphatically brushed aside Spain 6-0 during the final day to win promotion to the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group B. While Romania rejoiced in front of their fans, Spain bowed out with their head down as their final-day defeat sent them down to Division IIB. Newly promoted Australia celebrated a surprise silver, while Serbia built up steam after a shaky start to get their hands on the bronze medals.

Having the best scorers and the tightest defence was the combination for success as Romania racked up four wins and a sole defeat. Romania’s Ede Mihaly topped the scoring charts with nine points (8+1), teammate Botond Flinta was joint leader in plus-minus with +9 and right at the back while netminder Zoltan Toke conceded the least amount of goals. Martin Lacroix, who made his debut as head coach for Romania, was in full of praise of his players who stuck to the outlined game plan to the letter.

“We conceded five goals in five games, but we were not playing defensive hockey,” said Lacroix. “We kept it very simple and not taking too many risks in the defensive and neutral zone. We scored a lot of goals in the tournament, and the players were very responsible throughout the tournament,” he continued.

Pre-tournament favourites Romania got themselves in the driving seat from the outset at the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division II Group A. Mihaly had led the way and netted five goals as the hosts raced past Belgium in their opener, 9-1. They overcame their next hurdle, a physical encounter with neighbours Serbia, 4-1 before their course set straight for promotion temporarily derailed by a valiant Icelandic team. Despite being bombarded by 41 Romanian shots, the hosts were blanked as the Nordic nation recorded a historical 2-0 win with goals from Kristjan Kristinsson and Aron Knutsson. By the time round four came around, Romania required a must-win against newcomers and undefeated Australia in order to have fate in their own hands ahead of the final round of games.

Australia’s captain Lliam Webster picked out Jozef Rezek, who came flying down the left side to break the deadlock as his shot flied past Toke’s glove and into the net to silence the home crowd with 2:36 to go of the first frame. But Lacroix’s recent line changes immediately paid dividends for Romania. Csanad Fodor’s line with Norbert and Szilard Rokaly sparked Romania back to life and only 30 seconds after Australia’s opener, the hosts were back on level terms. Hugo Gecse flipped in a shot from the blueline with Szilard Rokaly netting the rebound left by Anthony Kimlin.

Romania got back into control and brushed off their first period scare by adding a pair of goals in each of the two remaining frames. All four lines were on target as Romania ran out as comfortable 5-1 winners. It was to be Australia only defeat during the tournament and one their head coach Brad Vigon sportingly credited a better opponent.

“I was awake at night after that game and wondered I had chosen the wrong strategy or the wrong game plan. In the end I must say they were better than us in every single facet of the game. I can live with myself when you get beaten by a team that had a better night than you,” said Vigon, who had plenty of positives to say on his battling team who finished just a point behind Romania.

“Character is our number-one criteria. We have a group of guys who are playing for each other and that is our biggest strength,” said Vigon, a former national team player for Australia who now is working wonders with a team built on strong foundations starting from the back.

“When we have a goalie like Anthony Kimlin we have a chance in every game, but I also knew coming into this tournament that any team would be capable to beat you in this division which has proven to be the case. But we have a lot more depth going forward back in Australia that we hope to add to our team next year which also could strengthen up our lower end lines,” he continued.

While Australia will be looking ahead for next year as a possible contender for promotion, another team wanting to step up a division will be Serbia. Arriving in Galati with as roster where 14 players this year competed in the Hungarian-Romanian MOL Liga, they had hopes that 2017 might have been their year. But an overtime loss against Australia and succumbing to Romania during the first two round of games dented any hopes of promotion.

“We had very high expectations coming into this tournament and we wanted to play for the first spot,” said head coach Nemanja Jankovic on his team that throughout the week combined highs such as a 9-2 win against Belgium and beating Iceland 6-0 with lows such as losing on overtime against relegated Spain.

“We are still young and most of the guys play in the MOL Liga so they will improve with time and experience. Overall you have to be happy, but we underachieved a bit, especially in crucial moments of certain matches, such as our overtime losses against Australia and Spain,” said Jankovic.

For fourth-placed Belgium, Gil Paelnick was back in his second spell as their head coach. Having previously guided Belgium to three silver medals in a row, his return was hampered by the team’s lack of preparation which saw his Belgium finish fourth with plenty of room for improvement ahead of next year.

“The first practice I had with the entire team was here in Romania. The level of the players is good, but you cannot gel as lines by just throwing them together,” he said.

The biggest surprise of the tournament was undoubtedly Iceland’s victory over Romania. A historical first for the Nordic team, whose goaltender Dennis Hedstrom was in inspirational form, saved 41 Romanian shots as Iceland blanked the hosts 2-0. Two debutants at this level were the scorers, 18-year-old Kristjan Kristinsson backhanded Iceland’s opener during the second frame, before Aron Knutsson doubled the lead with 5:53 left of the game.

“Romania did not think we would compete at all with them. We had a bit of luck, but also fought for every centimetre out there. That sums up the guys we have here on the team. When they know it is impossible, they go out of their way to prove you wrong. But then when things are fully possible, they seem to make it harder than it actually is,” said Iceland head coach Magnus Blarand as in their next game after toppling Romania, they came down to earth again with a bang, losing against Belgium 9-3. In the end Iceland had to settle for fifth place with six points but with the added youngsters to the roster passing the baptism of fire at this level bodes well for the future.

Spain, who last year finished second in this division on home ice, got off to a bad start in Galati. Beginning with three straight defeats they were unable to reverse the trend. They got their sole points on board following an overtime win against Serbia and will drop down to the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division II Group B.

“Our goal was to stay in the division, but we knew it was going to be a tough task and we needed to play at our best. During our game against Iceland, we outplayed them but just couldn’t score and that cost us. Now we got to regroup, and try to win the Division IIB next year,” said Spain’s head coach Mauricio Mansi.

The Phantom of Oz

By Henrik Manninen –

With newcomers Australia hunting for a medal at the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division II Group A, Wehebe Darge is enjoying hockey to such an extent that he has not had an off-season break for six years.

Clocking up three wins and one defeat during the tournament, the men from Down Under have been the surprise package in Galati, Romania. Entering the last round of games in second spot and trailing leaders Romania by one point, Australia’s return to Division IIA has been a success.

When Australia slumped to their first defeat during day four at the Division IIA staged in Romania, it had been a contrasting contest on a number of levels. While their conquerors Romania fielded a team of professionals with 80 competitive matches each under their belt this season, newly promoted Australia was quickly trying to get into shape ahead of their looming season. One of the few exceptions on the Australian team was Wehebe Darge.

“Ahead of coming to Europe, the majority on our team had not been out on ice for the last three-four months. For me it was a bit different, as my team Peterborough Phantoms had just been knocked out of the play-offs, so I felt in great shape,” said the 25-year-old forward Darge, who this season has been plying his trade in the English Premier Ice Hockey League (EPIHL).

While the Australian team had acclimatized themselves during a week-long training camp in Czech Republic, a fully fit Darge led the way for Australia as they steamed ahead right from the outset at the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division II Group A.

He scored their opener in their first game, a 4-3 win in over-time against one of the pre-tournament favourites Serbia. It was a win which set the tone for Australia in Galati. The newcomers then downed a plucky Iceland 3-2 and followed it up by overcoming Spain 5-3. While the hard grit and workmanship in the Australian team can be epitomized by bearded captain Lliam Webster, plenty of silky skills and speed is also on offer within the Australian camp where the first line of Darge teaming up with Beau Taylor and Josef Rezek has been their main attacking threat this week.

Darge, now representing Australia in his sixth World Championship at senior level, made his debut as a teenager winning a silver medal in Mexico City during the 2010 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division II Group A. It was a proud moment for the Adelaide-born forward who three years earlier had left his family and friends behind to move to Quebec, Canada in pursuit of hockey glory.

“When I was 15, we had a Canadian coach back home in Adelaide who told me that if I wanted to make a career out of this I would need to go overseas. I was put in contact with a school that took on international players and I took the chance, and here we are,” he said of a decision that set him on course for a hockey odyssey across the world.

Since then Darge’s unfading passion for hockey has taken him to far-flung places such as Alaska and Florida in the USA, Finland, Belgium and Great Britain. As off-season arrived in Europe and North America, he has made his return back home to play for Adelaide Adrenaline in the Australian Ice Hockey League (AIHL) before once again setting out on a new adventure during hockey seasons that never seem to end.

As Australia play against Belgium during their final game of the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division II Group A, both teams are in contention for medals. Darge hope to get the better of a few familiar faces from his time in Belgium playing for Chiefs Leuven during the 2015/16 season.

“Belgium’s Vincent Morgan was playing in Australia and he was the one who started to get me to Belgium originally. At Chief Leuven I played under Belgium’s national team coach Gil Paelinck and together with Maxime Pellegrims,” he said.

While the Australian senior national team might have faint hopes to re-enact the feat of their U18 national men’s national team, who during the last two seasons celebrated two successive promotions, Darge is looking to add another medal to his collection and cap off a fine performance in Galati before giving himself a treat after years of non-stop hockey.

“Having played hockey for six years straight and not having a month off since 2012, I plan to go surfing in Mexico for a month and then be ready when the Australian season starts,” said Darge who already has plans in place further ahead this year. “I will continue to enjoy hockey while also seeing new places, so I am hoping to be playing in France once the European season starts,” said Darge.

S. Korea wins women’s hockey world championship

By Yoo Jee-ho – Yonhap News

South Korea captured a world title in women’s hockey on home ice on Saturday.

South Korea defeated the Netherlands 2-0 in an intense battle to win the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) Women’s World Championship Division II Group A at Kwandong Hockey Centre in Gangneung, Gangwon Province. Forward Han Soo-jin scored both goals, as the host had a perfect record with five consecutive victories.

South Korea earlier took down Slovenia, Britain, Australia and North Korea in succession.

This is the fourth-highest level of the IIHF World Championships, and South Korea will be promoted to Division I Group B for the first time at the next championships. It earned a promotion from Division II Group B in 2013.

Coached by Canadian Sarah Murray, South Korea ran the table by scoring the tournament-high 21 goals and giving up the tournament-low three goals in five games. South Korea never trailed in the tournament.

South Korea netted nine power-play goals in 27 chances for the tournament-best 33.33 percent success rate. It is also the only team to go perfect in penalty kills, as it kept its opponents off the board in 13 such opportunities.

The Netherlands came into the competition at No. 19 in the world, the highest among six participants here and four spots above South Korea. The Dutch looked shaky on both ends in their earlier victories, but looked much stronger in the early moments of this game.

The Netherlands set up a strong forechecking from the opening puck drop and caused several South Korean turnovers deep in the offensive zone. Flustered in the early part of the game, South Korea tried to turn the tide on a five-on-three power-play opportunity late in the opening period, but Park Jong-ah and Randi Griffin each fanned on a loose puck lying near the crease with the goalie Lisa Daams out of position.

After the scoreless first period, Han Soo-jin put South Korea on the board at 16:04 in the second. Defenseman Cho Mi-hwan threw the puck toward the net through traffic, and Park Jong-ah got a stick on the rebound before Han shot finished the job.

South Korea got a power-play goal waved off at 1:15 in the third period, when Park Jong-ah kicked the puck into the open net. But the host scored the one that counted just 1:38 later, as Park fed Han from behind the net for a one-timer on the left wing.

South Korea caught a break when Julie Zwarthoed rang one off the crossbar just a few minutes later, and the Netherlands failed to keep the pressure on the rest of the way.

Shin So-jung, the usual No. 1 goalie who missed the four previous games with a knee injury, made 11 saves for the shutout.

Han, with two goals Saturday, was named the game’s best player for South Korea. For the tournament, Han Do-hee, who filled in for Shin in the first four games and had a shutout against North Korea, was selected as South Korea’s top player for the tournament.

USA beats Canada in OT to capture women’s gold

By The Canadian Press

The United States won their fourth straight women’s world hockey championship with a 3-2 overtime win over Canada on Friday.

Hilary Knight scored the winner at 10:17 of the extra period in front of a sellout crowd of 3,500 at USA Hockey Arena.

“It hurts. There’s no doubt about that,” said Canada coach Laura Schuler.

“You never want to hear another person’s anthem.”

Kacey Bellamy scored twice for the Americans and goaltender Nicole Hensley made 28 saves in the win.

Canada and the U.S. have clashed for gold in all 18 women’s world championships dating back to Ottawa in 1990.

The U.S. has now won seven of the last eight gold medals, while Canada hasn’t finished first since 2012.

The American women have also run the table of titles this Olympic quadrennial since falling 3-2 in overtime to Canada in the gold-medal game of the 2014 Olympics.

Meghan Agosta and Brianne Jenner replied for Canada. Shannon Szabados made 37 saves in her first international women’s hockey final since the 2014 Olympics.

Canada scored once on five power-play chances, while the U.S. went 0-for-5.

The U.S. outshot Canada 15-6 in the third period. A series of Szabados saves during an American power play late in regulation sent the final to overtime for the fourth time in the last six world championships.

“The biggest thing to take out of this is to get more shots on net and more quality shots,” said Agosta.

“It’s really tough but we need to bounce back and focus on the things we’re not so good at it so that next time we’re in this situation we’re ready to do whatever it takes.”

After a scoreless second period, Jenner scored a power-play goal to tie it 2-2 at 9:44 of the third. The goal was initially waived off, but awarded after video review.

Hensley slid her pad back into the net while making the save and the puck crossed the goal line.

Bellamy scored put the U.S. up 2-1 just 42 seconds into the third off Knight’s between-the-legs, backhand pass.

Bellamy scored her first on a slapshot from the blue line through traffic at 4:34 of the first period.

Jennifer Wakefield gathered up a U.S. centring pass in front of Szabados and skated the puck back on an odd-man rush with Agosta, who beat Hensley stick side 61 seconds after the opening faceoff.

So why has Canada won four straight Olympic gold medals, but can’t beat the U.S. for world championship gold?

When it comes to the Olympics, the Canadians have the advantage in preparation as they play about 30 games against midget triple-A boys during their six months of preparation.

They’re more battled-hardened and their execution of systems is superior.

But when both teams have just a few days of training camp prior to the world championship, the U.S. women’s individual talent and speed take over.

Those edges are slight, however. Five of the last six world championship finals have been decided by one goal.

The American women were an empowered group upon their delayed arrival in Plymouth.

Tired of negotiations they said were going nowhere, the host team threatened to boycott the tournament if USA Hockey didn’t increase their financial support more in line with what the men get.

They carried their point in the showdown with their federation. Over 100 women inside and outside the national team pool joined the movement and refused USA Hockey’s invitation to be replacement players.

According to The Associated Press, their compensation during the six months they’re together training full time for the Olympics tripled to roughly $3,000 per month.

They got the same insurance protection and business class travel the men get to the world championship.

The U.S. didn’t get a full training camp because of the dispute, but that didn’t hamper them.

“The negotiation process took a toll and our camp was shorter, but knew it was going to be a bond that was unbreakable,” said Knight.

They opened the tournament beating Canada 2-0 and allowed just five goals in five games.

Finland won bronze Friday with an 8-0 win over Germany. Fourth is the best result ever for that country.

The Finns are now playing a system capable of beating Canada and the U.S.

The question is whether they can maintain their gains on the North Americans next winter when Canada and the U.S. take big strides forward as full-time teams.

“Those financial resources, we don’t have,” head coach Pasi Mustonen said.

“We have to find a medicine for that. Our medicine probably will be that those aspiring for a spot on the roster have to practise with boys during the season. Now it’s time for the Finnish male hockey to show they really want to support us . . . offer a spot for every member of the women’s team to practise with boys’ teams.”

Russia placed fifth and Sweden sixth. Switzerland downed the Czech Republic 3-1 to win the relegation round, but the Czechs may not be relegated to the second-tier world championships.

Women’s world championships are not held in Olympic years. Increasing from eight to 10 countries in 2019 will be put to a vote at the International Ice Hockey Federation congress in May.

This year’s world championship averaged 800 spectators per game at USA Hockey Arena, which houses two rinks.

Finland routs Germany, wins women’s bronze

By Andrew Podnieks

Finland scored early, pressured the Germans throughout, and skated to an impressive 8-0 win over Germany in the bronze-medal game of the Women’s Worlds.

The win caps an excellent tournament for Suomi which earlier defeated Canada for the first time and later railled from a 3-1 deficit against the United States before losing, 5-3.

For the Germans, the 4th-place finish is their best ever at this event, all the more impressive given that they were in Division I last year.

“We started pretty well in the tournament, but as you can see on the ice against Canada, the United States, and Finland, the gap is big,” acknowledged Germany’s coach Benjamin Hinterstocker. “We don’t have to talk about which team is the better one, but overall, we should be happy for the team and women’s hockey in Germany. I think we represented German women’s hockey well.”

Such was the joy the Germans felt for their efforts here in Plymouth that after the game they took a team photo on ice, not a common practise after a lop-sided medal loss.

Noora Raty earned the shutout for the Finns today, stopping just 11 shots. The Finns put 38 shots on the German goal.

Captain Jenni Hiirikoski had a goal and two assists for the Finns while Petra Nieminen had two goals to lead the balanced attack.

“I think this was a big step forward,” Hiirikoski said, “especally looking to next season and the Olympics. We’re going to be playing and practising with boys next year, and that will help us get to the next level.”

“It’s a good ending,” said Raty. “I think we made a good statement here that we might have separated from the rest of the Europeans and actually have a real chance of playing in the finals one day.”

Today, though, Finland was too much. It scored just 53 seconds after the opening faceoff. Hiirikoski hit Linda Valimaki with a great outlet pass, and Valimaki skated around the German goal and tried a wraparound. Jennifer Harss was there to block the shot, but Petra Nieminen pushed home the rebound.

The Finns had the better of the puck all period and scored two late goals to put the game out of reach for the low-scoring Germans. Ronja Savalainen got one at 16:17 on a scramble, and 73 seconds later Venla Hovi also banged in a shot from close range after some fine digging behind the net from Valimaki.

Hinterstocker opted to give Ivonne Schroder some time in goal, so she started the second. Unfortunately, the Finns were firing on all cylinders and put five pucks behind her.

Hiirikoski started the onslaught with a slapshot from the point on a power play. She then got an assist on the next goal, by Noora Tulus, when Tulus knocked in the rebound off a high shot from Hiirikoski. By the end of the second, it was 32-6 in shots for Finland, and the Germans were simply trying to gain some experience from their second straight bad loss.

“We just wanted to play for each other,” Hiirikoski said. “We wanted to have fun and focus on winning.”

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