SOFIA – The 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship Division III Group A finished with an expected winner, Australia, but in a highly competitive five days of hockey in Winter Sports Palace in Sofia, Bulgaria.
Since the start of the tournament, Australia has been in Division III only five times. In the previous four events (2003, 2005, 2009, 2011) the “Kangaroos” were uncontested, won all 17 games with a 164 goal difference (184-20), and went back to Division II. This time around they earned the promotion to the upper level the hardest way.
“I was very surprised that the competition was so close. It’s obvious that the teams in this division had done a lot of work to be better. But it was also a bit of our own fault, because we haven’t scored goals,” said Australia head coach Steven Lindsay. “We have the least goals scoring percentage in the tournament. It was the same thing last year in Division II – only three goals on 87 shots. It’s something that we need to address in the Australian system. We need to start teaching the kids how to score goals, not only to shoot the puck.”
The very dramatic turn of events in the first four rounds set the stage for unprecedented final day with two teams hoping for promotion (Australia and Bulgaria) and five (everyone except the Aussies) in danger of relegation.
Chinese Taipei won 2-1 against Mexico in the first game on Sunday after trailing 1-0 before the last period. Po-Jui Huang and Ping-En Lu scored in the first six minutes of the third and the Asians secured their spot in the division. Depending on the next game, Chinese Taipei (8 points) could finish second or third, but Mexico needed a point to be safe and now had to wait nervously till the last game of the night.
Israel and Bulgaria went different directions as the tournament progressed. These trends continued, when they met, with the biggest loss for the hosts – 7-2. Aleksandar Panev tallied the two goals (for 1:1 and for the final score) and finished the tournament with a total of four, tied for fourth place in the goal scoring leaders’ table and ranked first in face-offs percentage won (78%). The top scorer and the winner of the award for best forward was the Russian-born Ilya Spektor, who powered the Israeli attack with 17 points (11+6).
“He is a guy that will block a shot for you and score a goal for you. That rubs off in the locker room. A player with that much skill and that much passion for the game can go down and do the sacrifice,” said the American assistant coach for Israel, Derek Eisler. Three players finished the event with 8 points: Israeli Roey Aharonovich (5+3), Dani Boudnikov (1+7) and Mexican Aleksei Gendron (8+0).
Bulgaria started with two narrow wins (3-2 vs. Mexico and 1-0 vs. Australia) and was leading 1-0 against Chinese Taipei until the 48th minute, but went free falling after that losing the game 3-1 and the next with New Zealand 5-4. In this thriller Bulgaria was ahead 2-0 and 3-2, tied at 4:4 with 2:21 minutes left, but allowed the crucial goal 26 second before the final buzzer.
Israel started with a 7-2 win against New Zealand, then lost to Mexico 5-2 and was defeated by Australia 3-2. Then on Friday the Israeli players were able to turn-around the game with Chinese Taipei from 2-3 to 7-3 in the third period.
With the last win against the host country, Israel finished second in the tournament – equaling its best placement in the U18 World Championship program in 2006. At that time the popular ex-Montreal Canadiens’ coach Jean Perron was leading the U18 team. In the last three participations (2010-11, 2013) Israel was in Division III Group B, earning promotion a year ago.
“The end result is far beyond our expectations. It would have been very good for us just being solid in this group after coming from the lower one. But the way we won games and finishing in second place is a very positive up-swing for Israeli hockey. The game against Mexico was the turning point for us. Coming after the loss we became more detailed about what we had to do. We concentrated on a lot of positional things and the players bought into it. We changed the way we handle the defence, went to the North American style instead of using block line – certain forwards with certain defencemen. Giving more ice time to our best guards benefited the team,” Eisler explained the success of the Israeli team.
When Bulgaria (6 points) lost to Israel (9), it became a fact that Australia is going to the upper level even without getting one point in the last game, but their opponents and “neighbours” from New Zealand (4) had to win in the regulation time to prevent relegation. Mexico (6, but with a loss to Bulgaria) was in the waiting position. Without any pressure on them, the “Kangaroos” finally stroke big time with three goals in the first period and three more in the second to win 6-0.
“We have some outstanding players, but no one had really stood up at this tournament at all. Our captain Casey Kubara has done a good job, but he should have up to 12 points and he has five. We have a very strong guard in Daniel Pataky (awarded as the best defenceman), but he also couldn’t find the net. But generally speaking I’m very happy with the team, the players have taken everything on the chin, their mental toughness has been really good. This was a struggle for them. They haven’t been able to use the kind of game that we’re good at. We are fast, but the other teams had buckled us down,” said Australia coach Lindsay. “I have never seen a tournament in Division III that is even as this one. Every game that we won before the one with New Zealand was by one goal and the game we lost to Bulgaria was 1-0. In all seriousness, it is a great thing for Bulgarian hockey that this happened. They have good players, but they seem to lose their focus in some critical parts of the games.”
Coaches of both top teams praised the good goaltending during the tournament. The directorate awarded Dimitar Videnov as the best one on this position. He made 31 saves against Australia for the first Bulgarian win over this opponent in the history of the U18 World Championship program. At that time Bulgaria was the only team with two wins, but ended in fourth place.
“We showed very good puck possession and skating in the first two games. Then the pressure from the emerging expectations following the two unexpected wins took its toll on the players. The turning point was the game against Chinese Taipei. In the third period we showed lack of discipline and lack of experience in close and highly competitive matches, which comes from the level in our domestic league,” said Bulgarian head coach Ivo Nikolov.Click here for scores, stats and photos.