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.