By Joeri Loonen – IIHF.com
Similar to 2016, the Netherlands made sure their stay in Division IIA would be limited to just a single year. Carrying the pressure of being the gold medal favourite, the Netherlands thrived on home ice at the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division II Group A in Tilburg.
In front of a capacity crowd at the IJssportcentrum in Tilburg, the hosts did not leave anything to chance and defeated unbeaten Australia 9-2 on the final day to win promotion to Division IB. Serbia claimed bronze while Iceland was relegated to the Division IIB.
Although the colour of the medal is similar, the 2018 Dutch team is not to be compared with the one that won gold two years ago. The majority of the best Dutch players are representing the Tilburg Trappers team, which has successfully transitioned to the German Oberliga boasting three consecutive championship titles. Whereas the move to Germany offered the players to play at a more competitive level, the long playoff runs consequently resulted in the players to be unavailable to participate in the World Championships to represent the Netherlands.
No such issues this year as this year’s tournament schedule allowed for the Tilburg players to join the squad of head coach Doug Mason. No less than 15 players were selected by the veteran coach and it paid immediate dividends.
The Dutch dominated the scoring charts with the top six of the scoring leaders all donning the orange jersey. On top of that the Dutch defence was rock solid allowing just five goals in five games.
“The team was fantastic. From the very first minute until the last they have played super ice hockey,“ Mason lauded his players. “An unbeaten record makes a coach look good but with these players it made my job really easy.“
Playing in front of their home crowd, the Netherlands sent out a clear signal to the rest of the teams brushing aside China 7-0 in their opening game before settings aside Iceland 11-1.
Serbia was the first team that was able to somewhat neutralize the Dutch offence but eventually had to concede a 5-0 loss. The Netherlands recorded double digits once again in game 4 against neighbours Belgium, who were swept 10-2.
With four straight wins, the Netherlands were on course to complete their mission but they had to wait until the final game day before being able to lock the first spot. On Game Day 5, the hosts met an Australia side which had been a positive surprise all tournament long. The Ozzie team coached by Brad Vigon had impressed with a solid performance in Tilburg.
“I’m extremely proud of the guys to see how my team has achieved in Tilburg. Most players haven’t been playing competitively for seven months before we got here,“ Vigon refers to the Australian AIHL league only having started last week.
“The players have to make personal sacrifices in terms of funding and taking time off work to participate in this championship. We only had a single exhibition game in the Czech Republic, so I was anxious to see how the players responded during the tournament. I believe we took a step forward with Australian hockey capturing two consecutive silver medals.“
The Ozzies were off to a good start thanks to a pair of goals in the final two minutes to defeat Iceland 3-0 in game one which built the momentum.
Goaltender Anthony Kimlin recorded his second shutout against Belgium; 6-0 before his team scored three unanswered third period goals against China to claim a 3-1 victory.
Australia continued their run by dashing Serbia’s hopes of grinding out a gold medal after a penalty shot victory on day four. The Serbs started the game emphatically taking a 2-0 lead but saw Australia take over control of the game scoring four unanswered goals.
Credit to Serbia for not giving up. Marko Sretovic scored shorthanded to cut the deficit to one and with time running out and the goalie pulled, Petar Novakovic scored 10 seconds left to play to tie the game 4-4. Beau Taylor scored the fifth and decisive penalty shot ensuring Australia to remain unbeaten ahead of the clash against the Netherlands on the final day.
The Dutch were off to a great start against Australia taking the lead after just one minute and never looked back. Raymond van der Schuit converted a beautiful tic-tac-toe combination with Reno de Hondt and Danny Stempher. Five minutes later Van der Schuit scored his second of the game and defensemen Jurry Smid and Jordy van Oorschot also tallied to put a 4-0 lead after 20 minutes of play.
Australia was unable to keep up with the tempo of the Netherlands who outshot their opponents 66-19. Mickey Bastings and Jordy Verkiel had lifted the score to 6-0 before Kieren Webster put Australia on the scoreboard after 31 minutes.
Misery wasn’t done yet.
Defenceman Giovanni Vogelaar’s trademark booming slapshot has been terrorizing opposition netminders throughout the tournament and also against Australia he found the net twice. Vogelaar ended up as the tournament’s top goal scorer with eight goals.
“We kept our focus and stuck to our game plan for the full 60 minutes,” Vogelaar commented. “We always felt we were going to win this tournament. Most of the Tilburg Trappers players know by now what it takes to win and that mentality was brought over to the rest of the team.“
Eventually the scoring spree stopped at nine goals with Thomas Powell saving the honour for Australia with a late goal to make it 9-2.
“The moment that first goal came I knew it was going to be a long game. It was such a high-quality goal as well from high-quality players,“ admitted Vigon. “We felt like we had no pressure on us to play this game so we were loose. In the end of the day the Dutch were just plain better than us. They are at a different level than us.”
Newly promoted China finished a respectable fourth after victories over Iceland (3-1) and Belgium (5-2), which had to settle for fifth place. Avoiding relegation was the main goal for the team of head coach Jyrki Aho, who knows his team still has a long way to go if they want to be competitive for the 2022 Olympic Winter Games the country will host in Beijing.
Belgium coach Gil Paelinck was visibly upset after his team’s disappointing fifth place finish.
“We have been outworked by most teams here this week. Our guys let their heads down the moment we fell behind,” he expressed afterwards. “Some players entered the tournament with the wrong attitude coming off a good season with their club team. I had rather seen a hard working gritty team on the ice instead.”
Last year’s surprise team Iceland could not repeat miracles and was relegated to Division IIB. The team of head coach Vladimir Kolek lost the crucial match against China and bowed out the tournament pointless.
“It was unfortunate we could not select our best players for this tournament,” Kolek said. “We now had to play a number of young players who are not yet ready for this level. Each game we made a couple of costly mistakes we could not overcome. However, I’m confident they will use this experience to improve and compete for promotion next year.”