By Andy Potts –

The Spanish team won the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship Division II Group B in Belgrade, leaving host nation Serbia in second place as Croatia took bronze. Turkey was relegated back to Division III after winning that section 12 months ago in New Zealand.

For the Spanish U20 national team it’s one of the biggest victories in recent year. Spain did in several categories lose out on first place against Serbia and seldom beats Croatia in men’s hockey. The win means promotion to the next level after five consecutive years in the Division I Group B. The four previous years Spain had finished in second place.

It was a tight group, with the top three teams all in contention going into the final day. Spain and Croatia faced off in the opening game, with the Spanish knowing that destiny was in their own hands. Victory would secure top spot regardless of other results, but defeat could be costly. A Croatian victory in regulation would have put the team in first place, but also opened the door for Serbia to top the group if it could beat Turkey in the last game of the event.

The Spanish approached their decisive fixture with a clear plan to frustrate Croatia. Across the three periods, the Iberian team allowed just 18 shots at Raul Barbo’s net and always had the upper hand in terms of generating offence. The second period was the most competitive, and Bruno Ficur’s goal midway through the session pulled Croatia back to 1-1 and threatened to put the group back into the balance.

Spain, though, rallied in the third. Two goals from Dorian Donath, the first of them a wrist shot fired in from an acute angle on the power play, secured a 3-1 victory and guaranteed gold and promotion to Division IIA. Serbia, unable to top the group, at least had the satisfaction of beating its neighbour and rival from Croatia to the silver medals thanks to a convincing 7-1 demolition of Turkey to conclude the action.

If Spain’s win over Croatia was decisive, the pivotal moment of the tournament came rather earlier, when Maurizio Mansi’s team played Serbia on the second game day in Belgrade. The host looked to be on course for a vital victory, leading 2-1 on third-period goals from Lazar Pejcic and team captain Luka Vukicevic. But a late penalty on Vukicevic proved costly: Spain, which would finish the tournament with the strongest power play in the event, snatched a dramatic last-minute tying goal through Alfonso Garcia. Serbia protested vigorously, insisting that Garcia’s stick was high when he swatted Donath’s looping feed into the net from close range. The officials were unmoved, Spain forced overtime and went on to win the shoot-out on Joan Cerda’s effort. The result tilted the balance of the group in Spain’s favour, and Serbia was unable to claw back the lost ground.

If it was tight at the top, it was even closer at the bottom. Belgium, Mexico and Turkey all finished the tournament on three points after the Mexicans’ final-day 5-4 win over the Belgians. That left Turkey needing a point from its game against Serbia to escape the trapdoor. However, that heavy loss against the host sent Turkey down to Division III.

Captain Jorge Perez was the toast of his team-mates after scoring 2+2 – including the game-winner – in that nail-biter against Belgium to keep his team in IIB. The Mexicans were clinical, especially in the early stages, when their first four goals came inside 23 minutes from just 11 shots at Belgium’s Anthony Gubbels. Gerardo Garcia del Valle came up strong in a tense third period, blanking the opposition to preserve a narrow lead until the end.

The final standings showed Belgium in fourth place, lifted by its opening day 8-3 victory over Turkey. Mexico came fifth thanks to its win against the Belgians, while Turkey’s 6-4 success against Mexico wasn’t enough to overcome that heavy loss at the start of the tournament.

Serbia could not top the table, but it did come out on top in the goalscoring chart. Vucicevic ended up with 8+4=12 points, boosted by a hat-trick in that game against Turkey. Mirko Djumic fired in… in the same match-up, moving to 3+8=11 and edging ahead of Spain’s Cerda (5+5).

Spain’s Raul Barbo was nominated as the top goalie by the directorate. In a high-scoring tournament, he played every minute of his country’s games and allowed just eight goals for a GAA of 1.57. He also recorded the only shut-out of the event, blanking Mexico in a 4-0 victory. The other directorate awards went to Croatian D-man Luka Kramaric and Serbia’s top-scoring forward Luka Vucicevic.