SOFIA – China won the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship Division III and will go back to Division II next year. In the deciding game of the tournament China was too strong for the host Bulgaria and stunned the passionate crowd of 2,010 people in the Ice Palace with a 10-1 win.
Both teams won their previous games in regulation and had the maximum available points. China started with wins against Turkey (7-3) and New Zealand (4-1). In both games the team led by head coach Yuqiang Pan put their opponents under pressure from the opening face-off and led 3-0 already in the first period.
Hosting the tournament for the first time since 2004, Bulgaria had great games versus teams that were unbeatable for them for quite a while. The first forward line (Maksim Eftimov – Ivan Hodulov – Martin Nikolov) was the force behind the wins over Mexico (3-1) and New Zealand (6-0). The last time Bulgaria had a victory over Mexico in U20 World Championships was in 2001, over the Kiwis in 2004.
The China-Bulgaria game on the second to last game day became the unexpected “final” that decided about the tournament win. The expectation of the home crowd for promotion to the upper level was high but the reality was completely different and hit the Bulgarians hard.
The players of the host nation were almost standing still while the Chinese scored two goals in the first minute of play by Chen Zhang (0:24) and by the captain Tianxiang Xia (0:54).
“We watched Bulgaria play two excellent games and were ready for a battle. The most important thing for us is the solid defence, after that we can think about the offence. We had a wonderful start, but there was too much time left in the game,” said coach Pan.
Bulgarian coach Martin Milanov immediately took a time-out, but the nightmare continued 83 seconds later with a third goal scored by the tallest player on the ice, Jiachang Bao (193 cm), with an assist from Xia.
Three consecutive infractions put the Chinese team in a difficult situation and coach Pan was furious when he took a time-out facing a 5-on-3 penalty killing for 92 seconds.
“At that moment I was not nervous at all. I wanted to remind the players that we put the emphasis first on the speed, second on the individual skills, but everything has to be team oriented.”
The host team wasn’t able to capitalize in this crucial time and every hope for a turnaround was eliminated when Hang Li upped the score to 4-0 just 33 seconds after the last penalty had ended.
Bulgarian coach Milanov took the philosophical approach after the game: “We lacked the needed concentration in the beginning and the guys were exhausted from the first two games. The Chinese team is by far the best in the tournament. They are better prepared than us, have a big physical advantage and we can’t compare with them. They deserved the win, but we didn’t deserve to lose by nine goals.”
A big crowd attended the deciding game of host nation Bulgaria against China. Photo: Bonchuk Andonov
The first period ended 6-0, the next two were 2-1 and 2-0 with the only goal for the hosts scored midway through the game to cut China’s clear lead to 7-1. Bulgaria will finish in second place in the tournament for the U20 national team’s first medal since 1988, when it was third. The best showing in an U20 World Championship was in 1985 when Bulgaria won the C-Pool at that time. Bulgaria will be ranked 36th overall in the U20 program – the best placement since 2003.
Tianxiang Xia finished the game with three goals and an assist, Jiachang Bao had 2+3. Both are on the top of the tournament’s scoring leaders list, but Xia was spotted by his coach and from the opposition’s coaches for being the best player on the winning team.
“For me this is an honor, but also a great reward for all the hard work that I had put this season, despite the few problems that I had with injuries. I want to continue to improve and I’ll try to pursue a professional career in Japan or Korea,” Xia said after the game.
“We arrived with only one mission – to win the tournament. I’m very happy and proud of the players that we achieved this aim. China has a big potential in sports and I hope that we can improve much more in ice hockey and the media will be more interested in it. There are new initiatives for bringing ice hockey in primary schools and high schools. That will help us build a big foundation for the sport,” said coach Pan commenting on the fact that the nation with 1.3 billion peoples has only 610 registered hockey players, but 43 indoors and 46 outdoor rinks.
China was in the U20 Division II for four years (2008-11) before being relegated to Division III for 2012.
China had its biggest successes with its women’s national team that finished in fourth place at the 1998 Winter Olympics and as well in the 1994 and 1997 IIHF Women’s World Championships.
New Zealand will finish the event in third place same as last year when they hosted the tournament in Dunedin. This time they had to travel to the Balkans and not all of the players could afford to pay for the trip.
“We have only four returnees and are missing some key players. Rolling on two lines in the first two tough games took its toll and against Bulgaria the guys were tired, very slow and not well oriented. But we also have to give credit to the Bulgarians. They have some exciting players”, said head coach Stephen Read.
Mexico was the team that went down from the Division II Group B last year and everybody was expecting a better performance in Sofia than fourth place.
“We had problems scoring goals in the first two games – we lost 1-0 to New Zealand and 3-1 to Bulgaria. I think the boys took those games lightly. They were able to produce scoring chances, but didn’t capitalize on them. Then we went furious against Turkey and won 11-2. Still I think we have the second best team in the Division. China is for the upper level. This is a disciplined team that is skating fast and works as a unit. Bulgaria has some individual stars, but is lacking the team game and discipline,” said Joaquin de la Garma, the team leader and president of the Mexican Ice Hockey Federation.
Mexico will play China on Sunday while Bulgaria faces fifth-ranked Turkey.
The team from the United Arab Emirates was supposed to make its debut in the U20 World Championships, but failed to register a minimum of 15 skaters and 2 goaltenders. All UAE games were forfeited (5-0) but the UAE U20 national team played these games as exhibition games outside of the competition.
However, the Emirati were never close to a victory and lost their four games by even higher margins. Sultan Al Monsoori scored the historic first and so far only goal for the U20 national team in what became his team’s heaviest defeat, 23-1 to China.