AUCKLAND – It was an emotional moment. The partisan crowd erupted and the players hugged themselves. Hungary had won the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship Division II Group A in New Zealand.
Hungary beat Italy 3-1 in the deciding game to claim the tournament win and get promoted to Division I Group B next year. It was the consequence of one of the fastest improving women’s hockey programs in the world that led the U18 women’s national team to sixth place worldwide recently before countries such as Russia, Germany or Switzerland.
“I can’t describe the feeling,” said 16-year-old Hungarian player Lili Pinter. “It’s like falling in love. You have butterflies in your stomach and just want to scream and scream.”
Italy had been unbeaten in the five-game tournament and Hungary had to win in regulation time to claim the gold medal.
Italy had played controlled hockey throughout the tournament and been able to slow down games to their own pace and mesmerise their opponents.
But they could not tame the firepower of the Hungarians with their deep commitment. They wanted to take the trophy back to Budapest after missing out on it the year before.
“We knew it would not be easy. It was a hard game all the way. They came at us but we had a good defence,” Pinter said.
The key to the win was the speed of the Hungarian players who were able to turn defence into attack in an instant.
They were also buoyed on by ex-patriot Hungarians who had immigrated to New Zealand and made the players feel that it was just another home game.
“It was amazing support, really amazing,” said Zsuzsanna Kolbenheyer, who overlooks the women’s hockey program in the Hungarian Ice Hockey Federation and has been elected as IIHF Council member last year.
“We didn’t know so many Hungarians lived in Auckland. They came out to see us. It was a very good feeling.”
The win was an important first step in Hungary’s bid to lift its standards and qualify for the 2018 Winter Olympics.
“We wanted to win the tournament,” Kolbenheyer said. “We have a very good and very young team that will help us stay at the top for a long time.”
Thirteen members of the Hungarian squad are under the age of 18 and the entire team is under the age of 21. All are amateur players. One year ago Hungary made it to the top level of the U18 Women’s World Championship program and finished in sixth place overall this year.
“We played really well,” Kolbenheyer said. “It was our best game of the tournament. We can beat any team when we play like this.”
The Hungarians celebrated the dramatic win at their hotel before returning to Hungary.
“We are looking forward to getting back to Budapest and celebrating with our fan base back home,” Kolbenheyer said.
The loss to Australia, 5-3, in the second round stung Hungary and forced it to adopt different tactics to beat Italy.
“I was very surprised because last year we beat them 3-0,” Kolbenheyer said. “We thought we could win all our games.
“We made mistakes against Australia and we had to show that we can be a better team. It was good for us and made us realise that it would not be easy to win the tournament.”
Kolbenheyer said that the goal was to win this tournament and get promoted.
“But it was not as easy as we thought. It’s been a very good championship because all the teams are very strong and you don’t know who will win in any game.”
She has been impressed by the improvement of women’s hockey standard over the last 12 months.
“It was very good and was very exciting,” she said. “We saw good games and good hockey. I really like it.”
The loss to Australia meant that Hungary had to beat Italy to win the title. They knew it would not be easy because Italy was unbeaten and only had to draw the game in regulation time.
The Italian team was determined to make amends and win the tournament after finishing last in the Division I Group B at Hull, Great Britain, last year and getting demoted.
“Last year we lost the tournament and went down,” captain Linda de Rocco, 27, said. “It was hard last year and we lost all the games. This year we wanted to reverse that and get back into Division I.”
The key to Italy’s unbeaten record at Auckland before the Hungarian game was its ability to play well as a team. It had a super-efficient first line and a strong defence.
“It was not just one player. We went well as a team,” de Rocco said.
Italy played a very structured game and attempted to stifle the attacking skills of the tournament’s top goal scorer Alexandra Huszak, 17, out of the game with close marking.
But they had no answer to the unstructured nature of the Hungarian play and their ability to turn opportunities into goals.
It was a bullet start by Hungary. Its youngsters stole a march on Italy by scoring a goal in the first 25 seconds and held that 1-0 lead for the first period.
Alexandra Huszak burst up the centre and Vivien Somogyi was on hand to smack the puck into the back of the net.
It shocked unbeaten Italy and it took time to tame the flying youngsters who were dominating the game.
But the experienced Italian team slowed the game down and gradually settled into its game and by the end of the period had 10 shots on goal compared to six by Hungary.
Italy failed in its bid to squeeze Hungary out of the game in the second period by its stifling tactics.
The Hungarian defence shut Italy out and it was not able to reach the net in its two power plays.
16-year-old goalkeeper Aniko Nemeth shut out the Italian strikers with a game display.
Just when Italy was relaxing after surviving a Hungary power play another youngster, 16-year-old Andrea Kiss, burst up the centre.
She was tripped from behind but instead of waiting for the penalty call she got up and belted the puck into the back of the net in the last 30 seconds to give Hungary a 2-0 lead.
Hungary was most dangerous at the beginning and end of a period when they got unexpected breakouts.
A third Hungarian goal by defender Dorottya Medgyes early in the final period spelt the end of Italy’s hopes of promotion. It was forced to play catch-up hockey and did not have the firepower to do this.
A late goal by Mia Campo Bagatin made no difference. Italy was comprehensively beaten.
Hungary’s star was the aggressive attacker Huszak who created fear in the minds of defenders because of her ability to spot opportunities and make clean breaks.
She was named the top forward of the championships by the directorate and was the top scorer with 11 goals. Huszak was also the most penalised player.
The other top forwards in the Hungarian team were Dorrottya Medgyes with six goals and Fanni Gasparics who was first equal on the table with six assists.
Another key player in the Hungarian team was Franciska Kiss-Simon who was named by the directorate as the best defenceman.
Goalkeeper Aniko Nemeth played a key role in the final when she conceded only one goal from the 29 Italian shots at goal.
She was the second best goalkeeper at the championships and conceded only nine goals and made 87 saves for a percentage of 90.62.
Italy’s Giulia Mazzocchi was named by the directorate as the top goalkeeper at the weeklong tournament and conceded just eight goals from the 100 shots at the Italian goal. Her percentage was 92.
She sets herself a high standard and was not happy about letting in four goals in the first two games. She was miserly after that and only conceded four more goals.
“I was a little upset in letting in a goal against Slovenia,” she said. “I had a 100-percent record in the next game against Poland and it helped me get to the top of the goalkeeping stats.”
She conceded three goals from 30 shots against Hungary.
Mazzocchi was upset by Italy’s failure to get back into Division I.
“We don’t want to stay in this division. We want to get into Division I,” she said. “That is where we belong. We want to go back up.”
Most of the team plays their hockey in Italy. Some of the players have gained extra experiences by playing in other countries.
Valentina Bettarina plays for an Austrian club and Eleonora Dalpra plays in Germany.
“They get money for expenses but don’t make a living out of hockey,” Mazzocchi said.
Samantha Gius, 18, goes to high school in the United States and plays for the Michigan Ice Dogs.
This is the first time that members of the Italian team have been to New Zealand.
“It’s too far away,” Mazzocchi said. “It’s awesome playing here. The weather is great. I live in New York State and the weather is so cold just now. I’m so glad I came here and I can wear T-shirt and shorts.”
She studies government and European studies at St Lawrence University.
The final placings were:
1. Hungary 12 points
2. Italy 12
3. Australia 9
4. New Zealand 7
5. Poland 5
6. Slovenia 1
Australia’s best performance was to beat Hungary 5-3 in the second round and its worst loss was to New Zealand 4-3.
Its best players were its goal scoring forwards Andrea Steranko with eight goals and Shona Green with six. They finished second and third on the goal scoring table.
Steranko was first equal on the assists table with fellow Australian Alivia del Basso with six.
New Zealand had two wins and its most impressive was the 4-3 win against its trans-Tasman neighbours Australia.
Its best player was goalkeeper Grace Harrison, 15, who finished fifth on the table after conceding 15 goals from 143 shots for a percentage of 89.51.
“She is only 15 and has faced the best shooters,” coach Corey Downs said. “She is too young to realise how well she is playing. She loves every minute she gets on the ice.”
The best New Zealand forward was Kiri Langford who scored four goals. She also had three assists and was ranked seventh.
It was not all doom and gloom for Slovenia because its goalkeeper Ines Confidenti was ranked third with a 90.27 percentage. She faced 113 shots and conceded only nine goals.
Pia Pren was the third best equal goal scorer with six goals and Nadja Vakaricic was ranked fourth equal with four assists.
Recently-promoted Poland had an 2-1 overtime win against New Zealand and also beat Slovenia 3-2 to maintain in the Division II Group A.
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