Estonia storms to gold

Four straight wins seals instant return to Division I

15.04.2014
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Mission completed: The Estonian players celebrate the promotion back to the Division I Group B after four straight wins in Belgrade. Photo: Milos Rafailovic

BELGRADE – Unstoppable Estonia sweeps the field to win promotion from the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division II Group A in Belgrade to next year’s Division I Group B.

Never shaken nor stirred and eager to make amends for their disappointing demotion during last year's Division I Group B tournament in Donetsk, Ukraine, a new-look Estonia bounced straight back up a division with their credentials hardly been put to test. Seeing off Iceland (4-1), Australia (5-1) and Serbia (5-2), promotion was secured during Day 4 thanks to a 16-3 trouncing of newly promoted Israel. It marks the winning start and job done for the vastly experienced Finnish coaching duo, Sakari Pietilä and Harri Rindell, who stepped in at the helm of Estonia ahead of the tournament.

"We are the best team here, but this can also sometimes prove to be the hardest thing; to win when you know you must do so and while the pressure is on," said Pietilä, who together with his sidekick Rindell accepted the offer to take charge of Estonia just one month ahead of the Division II Group A in Belgrade giving them little time to stamp their mark on the roster. "The biggest challenge for us during our preparations was to try and find what players were best suited to play together," he continued.

When Serbia's Nemanja Vucurevic's goal cut down Estonia's lead to 3-2 with at the start of the final frame during Day 3, it was to be the closest any of the teams got to upset the Estonians on their road to the gold medals in Belgrade. It was also a goal that briefly took you down a short walk down memory lane from the two nations’ last meeting during a competitive match held in Serbia. Then in 2009, during the World Championship Division II Group A played in Novi Sad, hosts Serbia had rallied back from a 1-4 deficit to win against firm favourites Estonia after penalty shots, a result which in effect sealed the gold medals for the Serbs.

Five years on, this current vintage of a Serbian team were not cut from the same cloth. With only a short domestic championship behind them and two of their key players, Marko Sretovic and Marko Milovanovic, out of the running for this tournament, the bulky Serbs lacked the required bite to challenge the superior Estonians. As the third frame went on, the Estonians soon stepped up a gear as Robert Rooba scored Estonia's fourth goal at 16:17 before Aleksandr Ossipov hit the final nail in the coffin with his 5-2 goal.

"Serbia played very defensive in that game, so I don't think we would have lost our lead," said Ossipov, who instead singled out the attacking threat from Israel such as Daniel Erlich, Eliezer Sherbatov and Oren Eizenman as the one game which required him and his defenceman to stay firmly on their toes on course for gold. "The game versus Israel was the toughest game. In the earlier games we had been a bit unfocused, but against the Israelis we played better and despite the result they also battled really well," he said.

Following last year's combination of ill-discipline and flat performances which in the end brought Estonia down to Division IIA, only seven players featuring in Donetsk got the nod ahead of this year's World Championship. While the return of seasoned veterans such as captain Lauri Lahesalu and attacking threat Andrei Makrov was much-welcomed, so was the other double-coup on the Estonian bench, which saw the arrival of vastly experienced coaching duo of Pietilä and Rindell. Accompanied with star-studded resumes including long careers full of illustrious appointments at the very highest level in both Finland and Sweden, their qualities have instantly been widely welcomed by the Estonian players.

"They have been very good," said Ossipov about the Finnish coaching duo. "They are not the ones to rant and rave, and have created a good atmosphere in the dressing room. They have vast experience from coaching in the top leagues in both Sweden and Finland and also having worked with various Finnish national teams, so I think it has been very positive."

While the coaching duo has yet to commit themselves for the Estonian cause long-term, Ossipov now hope the gold won in Belgrade can help bring an end to the stop-start progress of Estonia, knowing just the perfect way for them to go about reaching a bit more stability for next year.

"We hope to arrange the World Championship in Tallinn next year. With a bit of support in our backs and with all players available we could then maybe even be able to battle for the bronze," said Ossipov.

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HENRIK MANNINEN

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