IZMIT, Turkey - World rankings went out of the window as Israel struck gold at the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division II Group B. Hosts Turkey will stay in Division II thanks to a win on the final day against Bulgaria.
40th in the latest IIHF World Rankings and with a disappointing fifth-place finish last year, Israel entered the tournament in Izmit as an unknown entity and the second-lowest ranked team.
Four games and four wins later, promotion to Division II Group A was already a done deal going into the last day. Hard fought victories against China (6-3), Turkey (5-3) and New Zealand (3-2) set the tone for the Israelis led by points by their lethal first line of Daniel Ehrlich, Oren Eizenman and Maxim Birbraer. All three players, who had been unavailable during last year's World Championship, now made the difference with Ehrlich almost single-handedly clinching promotion by scoring 11 points in a 13-2 rout of Bulgaria on day 4.
Despite a defeat to Mexico in the last game, it was a tournament with an array of positives for Israel head coach Jean Perron.
"Overall we played really well and disciplined, and the first four games were extremely pleasant for me as a coach," he said. "When I talk about discipline I don't only mean staying away from penalties, but also that the players are following the system that we are set to play. We upset China right from the start, we upset New Zealand, so we had a very successful ride. I wish we could have won the fifth game too, but overall we played extremely well."
Perron, a 1986 Stanley Cup winning coach with the Montreal Canadiens enjoyed a fruitful spell with Israel already between 2005-06 when he then steered the Middle Eastern nation to Division I to play against the likes of France and Germany. Now in his second spell as head coach, Perron believes good progress is once again being made in Israel.
"With the new management and the new direction at the Israeli Federation it seems like we are going to be able to keep our best players so they can continue to play and practise even when they are doing the military service. Also the junior players we had here in Izmit are better than the ones I had during my first year in Israeli hockey, so I think we are on the right path," he said.
While Israel can look forward to Division IIA next year, second-placed New Zealand will rue some of the decisions made out on the ice during their tight encounter with the eventual gold medal winners. Three Israeli goals in one man advantage saw them rush into a 3-1 lead. Jeremy Chai pulled a goal back for the Ice Blacks midway through the final frame, but despite offensive pressure and having pulling goaltender Richard Parry from the net, they weren’t able to get the tying goal and Israel held out for a 3-2 win.
"Five on five we were even with Israel but we weren't smart enough to avoid penalties. They score three power-play goals against us and that cost us the game," said New Zealand head coach Andreas Kaisser.
Coming down from Division IIA for this season, New Zealand arrived to Turkey without a few regular starters as the players themselves having to fork out NZ$ 4,000 (€2,600) for their World Championship trip. But, with his team ending up level with points with Israel, Kaisser can take a lot of positives with him ahead of next year's promotion push.
"The boys showed a lot of character throughout the tournament. All five games were tough and they really came closer together as a team. The last game against China reflects the whole tournament for us, we were two goals down, but the players showed true character and that they are really determined and passionate for their sport and to play for their country and it was great to see,” said Kaisser after the 6-5 win against China, a game which sealed their silver medals ahead of Mexico.
29 hectic third period seconds into the final frame of Mexico's closing game versus Israel first saw Bryan Arroyo's slapshot finding the top corner before Cristofer Kelo reacted in front of the net to steer home the 4-3 winning goal in Mexico's favour that won the bronze medals for the Central Americans, their first at the Division II level.
Mexico needed time to get into tournament mode as its crop of players arrived to Izmit without having played any national championship this season and with only three competitive international games behind them all season - dating back as far as to a Olympic Preliminary Qualification in Croatia in September last year.
"We must have been the underdogs for the others, and for ourselves we didn't really know what to think about us as a team" said forward Manuel Sierra. "But I think we did a good job and now we are looking forward to try and get to host the World Championship in Mexico City for next year and try and win it.”
Things are looking up now for the Mexican program, with a third Olympic-sized ice rink due for completion in the capital of Mexico which the federation will be having easy access to.
China, who last year finished second in Division II Group B, blew hot and cold during a tournament in which they finished fourth. Lack of discipline such as 97 penalty minutes in the 5-0 loss to Mexico were mixed with sparks of brilliance when scoring three unanswered second-period goals against New Zealand in their final game 6-5 loss.
The youngest team of the tournament with an average age of only 22, Japanese head coach Keisuke Araki, in his second year at the helm, harbours high hopes for his promising crop of youngsters.
"Our players are very young and skilled, but lack experience, so they need time. Most of them also play in the Asia League with China Dragon. They will have a lot of good experiences and we are hoping that in two years we can be ready to promote the national team up one division and in five years maybe even be ready to take another step up," said Araki.
Meanwhile, at the other end, despite four straight defeats, newly promoted hosts Turkey were able to take great credit from high-spirited performances throughout the tournament, such as being 3-2 up against Israel ahead of the third period, before losing 5-3 in the end. But the hosts finally broke through and got their reward in their final game, in the relegation-decider against neighbours Bulgaria.
Down 3-1 early thanks to Bulgaria's prospect Georgi Iskrenov scoring a first period hat-trick, Turkey worked themselves back into the game.
Despite a short power failure midway through the second period, the light never went out for the Turks' battle for survival as they rallied back to tie the game at 3-3 before the middle frame came to and end. Two quick goals by Yusuf Halil and Serkan Gumus with 42 seconds between them in the final period sealed the game, which in the end finished with a 6-3 win for Turkey and a place in next year's Division II Group B.
"Motivation is never a problem with these players," said Turkey head coach Eduard Hartmann. "Instead it can often get too emotional and hot-blooded and I had to tell my players to be calm down and be patient after we scored our fourth goal."
The consequences for Bulgaria following their final day loss meant relegation to Division III but also the end of a magnificent international career of a true hockey legend.
With a remarkable 24 senior World Championships between the pipes for Bulgaria, Konstantin Mihaylov will bow out from the international stage. He made his last appearance in the defeat against Israel as he replaced Nikola Nikolov in the net for the final period, where the age gap between the two goalies were 29 years and five days.
Mihaylov's advice to his 19-year-old disciple whom he coached for four years in the past is as plain as its simple: "He has the skills, but he must train harder."
1. Israel 12 (promoted)
2. New Zealand 12
3. Mexico 11
4. China 6
5. Turkey 3
6. Bulgaria 1 (relegated)
Best Players Selected by the Directorate:
Best Goalkeeper: Avihu Sorotzky, Israel
Best Defenceman: Berton Haines, New Zealand
Best Forward: Brian Arroyo, Mexico
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