By Oleg Vinokurov – IIHF.com
Team Serbia prevailed in IIHF World Championship Division III Group B with a game to spare in a double round-robin tournament in Tnuvot involving Israel and Bosnia & Herzegovina. Last year, in its debut appearance on the world stage, Serbia finished second behind Estonia ahead of the two other above-named newcomers. Estonia moved on to Division IIIA, just three teams remained in the group which predictably made the Serbians favorites. And this week’s action proved the prediction right.
It all started with a convincing – though not always straightforward – 5-1 win over Israel. After that, Ilija Cukovic’s team switched to another gear and victories became much more comprehensive. Beating Bosnia & Herzegovina 12-1 and Israel 9-0 Serbians put themselves in a pole position ahead of the final clash with Balkan neighbors.
Then came the time for gifts.
March 30th, Serbia head coach Cukovic was celebrating his 43rd birthday when good news from One Ice Arena reached the team’s hotel. Israel beat Bosnia & Herzegovina, meaning that Serbia would finish on top regardless of the last day’s result.
“It was amazing news, exactly what you’d want for a birthday present,” Cukovic recalls. “That’s what I told Israelis when they came back to the hotel. They didn’t know, of course, and obviously, they were happy for themselves but I still thanked them and we had a good laugh. We are good friends, after all.”
Thus, Ilija and his players could treat the final game as a lap of honor but by no means intended to. “It was a nice present but we never wanted any help. Our goal was to win all four games – and it remains the same,” he said before the last bow.
And that’s just what Serbia did wrapping the tournament with another double-digit victory, this time 11-0. This result may well be seen as a return favor to Israel as it insured the host team’s second-spot finish. Israel and Bosnia & Herzegovina exchanged wins and ended level on points with three, but head-to-head goal difference favored the hosts who lost 4-2 before taking a 4-1 revenge.
Individual honors went to goaltender Yael Fatiev (Israel), defender Amila Sose (Bosnia & Herzegovina), and forward Milica Velcek (Serbia). Her compatriot Valentine Vrhoci topped the scoring chart with 14 (10+4) points.