LJUBLJANA – There have been a few revelations after two days of play at the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A, but none have been as obvious as the performance of Hungarian rookie goalie Bence Balizs.
Balizs hadn't really been in the plans for the tournament before this season. For the past five years there have been only two goalies who shared duties on the Hungarian national team: Levente Szuper and Zoltan Hetenyi.
Szuper – pronounced “Super” – has been in the net since 2001. At that time the globetrotter was playing for the AHL’s Saint John Flames. At this time of the year he’s busy in the Kazakh playoffs with Arystan Temirtau and had to decline the invitation to join the national team.
Since 2008 he got competition from Hetenyi. The 24-year-old left Fehervar last summer to play in Finland for Jokerit Helsinki and second-tier club Kiekko-Vantaa, but had to say no due to illness.
Losing the top-two goalkeepers can be a huge handicap for a country that isn't considered among the top hockey nations in the world. But so far not for Hungary.
“They were more than welcome to come, but that’s the way it works at many places. Sometimes players are not available for various reasons and some are,” says Hungary head coach Kevin Primeau. “They’re two very good goaltenders, but we have a good goalie here too.”
While Hungary faced some challenge in its first games against Japan and Ukraine, Bence Balizs was one of the reasons why his team ended up winning on both occasions.
The 21-year-old netminder conceded only two goals and leads all goalkeepers in GAA (1.00) and save percentage (97.18%).
Balizs comes from the Fehervar AV19 organisation. The city of Szekesfehervar is known as the country’s hockey hotbed and its first team plays in the Austria-based EBEL league.
“He’s very solid technically, he’s very solid mentally and he’s just going to keep getting better,” Primeau says about his goalkeeper. “We have been doing a good job around him with clearing the pucks, supporting him.”
Balizs is in his second season as the number-two goalkeeper of the organisation. Last year he shared duties with Hetenyi, this year with former Chicago Blackhawk Adam Munro.
He was in the net for 14 EBEL games and is ranked 12th in the league with a 91.3 save percentage, two places behind Munro. He also played additional games in the domestic league and led his team to the Hungarian championship.
Of course the two wins in Ljubljana took a load of the rookie’s mind and he enjoyed the fact that hundreds of travelling Hungarian fans make it a home-ice atmosphere for his team at Arena Stozice.
“Everything’s going alright. It’s my first World Championship and it’s a very nice feeling to win in front of the Hungarian audience,” the 188-cm tall goalkeeper says.
“We played two games against Poland before the tournament and I already saw there that the team is very strong and I was positive coming to Ljubljana.”
Now he can hope to get more ice time with his team as well where he’s under contract for next season.
Whether Balizs will play all five games in Ljubljana is not determined yet. The other goalie on the roster is Krisztian Budai, a veteran of 32 years who hasn’t played a World Championship game for the past five years and who spent the season with Miskolc in the Hungarian league.
“We will talk about that and see how he (Balisz) feels,” Primeau says. “Budaj is more than capable. It will be a tough decision, but either way we will get solid goaltending. I know that.”
After having faced the lower-seeded teams, it will become tougher for the Hungarians. Tomorrow there will be an emotional clash between Slovenia and Hungary at Arena Stozice. A sold-out game fans on both sides have anticipated for a long time.
The teams met already two years before in Ljubljana when Slovenia earned promotion to the top division thanks to a 4-1 win against their neighbours.
The outlook for ending up in the first two places and get promoted to the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Sweden and Finland will be bright for the team that wins tomorrow’s clash as only these two teams and Austria have been undefeated so far, opening a six-point gap to the other teams.