SOFIA – Bulgaria won decisively 9-1 (2-1, 3-0, 4-0) against Georgia in the Olympic Qualification Game played Saturday night in the Winter Palace to earn a spot in the next stage on the road to PyeongChang 2018.
Next month from 5 to 8 November, Bulgaria (39th in the IIHF World Ranking) will compete with host Estonia (29), Mexico (32) and Israel (33) in the Olympic Qualification Preliminary Round 1 in Tallinn. At the same time the other group in this round will be staged in Valdemoro with host Spain (31), Serbia (30), Iceland (35) and China (38). Each tournament winner then advances to the second preliminary round in February before the Final Olympic Qualification tournaments will be played next September.
Despite missing half of its top players Bulgaria was the clear favourite in the game against Georgia. One-and-a-half years ago the team was in full strength and scored 10 goals in the first period for a 19-1 win. This time around it wasn’t that easy, at least in the beginning, something that the opponents boldly predicted the day before the game.
Bulgaria opened the scoring on a great shorthanded breakaway by captain Martin Boyadjiev at 3:37. Vitali Dumbadze showed good puck-handling skills and with individual breakthrough four minutes later he tied the game. The hosts took the lead again at 12:24 after Boyadjiev had redirected a shot by Nikolay Bozhanov from the blue line – 2-1. Until the end of the period Dumbadze had two excellent scoring chances but found the crossbar on the first one and later couldn’t capitalize on a breakaway.
“We weren’t surprised by the Georgian team. It’s the same since we beat them in 2014. I don’t think the players underestimated the opponent either. In the beginning the players were nervous, which is normal when you don’t have many practices,” said Bulgaria head coach Kiril Hodulov after the game.
The second period started with two quick goals by his team. Boyadjiev again was flying on the ice, went behind the net and passed the puck to the oncoming 18-years-old Yanaki Gatchev, who beat Georgian goalie Andrei Ilienko for the 3-1 goal. The Russian-born netminder was out of position seconds later and Kristian Semkov extended the score to 4-1. This was the home team’s only goal of the game without the contribution of Boyadjiev, who finished with eight points (2+6). In the end Gatchev did a hat trick, Petar Mihov scored two goals and Bogdan Stefanov one.
“These two goals in the first two minutes of the second period calmed down the team and then everything went into places. Boyadjiev showed that he is a true captain and without doubt was the best player on the ice today. In the difficult moments he took charge of the play and his teammates. It’s no coincidence that this line made almost every goal. Gatchev keeps growing in presence and confidence on the ice,” Hodulov revealed his positive feelings.
His colleague on the opposite bench, the Russian Dmitri Afanasyev, was realistic about the difference in the level of the two teams: “Bulgaria has a good team that competes in the Division II and we are in Division III. I had to use just two lines and with the time these players had difficulties keeping the same level with the hosts. Every period became worse than the previous one. I just came to Georgia last month and we didn’t have time for practices – we had two in Batumi and two in Sofia. So there were some moments in which we were counting too much on individual skills instead of passes. But there are good young players in Georgia and with the project for three new arenas in the country we can only get better.”
In the same time the future for the Bulgarian team is quite unclear at the moment. “With this team we don’t have any chances in the next stage. We need our players who are competing abroad,” Hodulov said and hopes that the missing players will become available during the November event in Estonia. Click here for the Olympic Qualification overview.