Australia made it back-to-back promotions after holding its nerve in a dramatic final-day showdown at the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship Division II Group B in Serbia.
The prolific duo of Findlay Wood and Tyrone Bronte – who bossed the tournament scoring after sharing 23 points between them – fired the Aussies to a 4-1 victory over the host Serbs in the decisive game in Belgrade.
That left Spain reflecting on what might have been after it missed out due to its head-to-head result against the eventual winner.
Going into Sunday’s decisive games, four teams were tied on nine points. Australia, Spain, pre-tournament favourite the Netherlands and the host nation Serbia all had three wins and one loss. Moreover, they all played against each other: Spain faced off against the Dutch to start, before Serbia vs Australia wrapped up the whole event.
It made for a fascinating set of permutations. Australia knew that a 1-2 defeat against the Dutch meant its hopes would be over if the Oranje got a regulation victory over Spain. After 91 seconds, the Netherlands were in front, but Spain – still hoping to claim top spot for itself – eventually managed to rally for a 5-2 victory, paced by a hat-trick from Alejandro Burgos.
The home crowd at the Pionir ice rink gained some additional Spanish support for the evening game. Spain’s 4-3 victory over the Serbs would be enough to take gold to Madrid if Serbia denied the Aussies a regulation-time victory, but Australia’s 4-1 win over the Spanish – courtesy of a Bronte hat-trick and 29 saves from goalie James Downie – gave the team from Down Under the edge if it could earn maximum points in its final engagement.
Serbia settled quicker, capitalising on some Australian anxiety to take an early lead. Andrija Spanjevic played a pass from beyond his own goal line to set Mirko Djumic racing into the Australian zone. Unimpeded by defensemen, he opened the scoring in the fourth minute.
But the deadly duo of Bronte and Wood showed once again why they had spent the week tormenting goalies, combining for two goals in a minute early in the middle stanza to turn the game around.
First, Bronte teed up Wood for the equalizer; 34 seconds later the roles were reversed and Australia was ahead. Serbia responded with a brief flurry of shots on Downie’s net, but ran into penalty trouble. Australia won the subsequent face-off, Bronte’s shot was saved by Jug Mitic and Wood was on-hand to convert the power play after just six seconds. A 3-1 lead put Australia in complete command.
The Aussies still faced problems, not least when Darcy Flanagan was ejected for the game for a check to the head, leading with his shoulder as he crunched an opposing player.
Serbia’s Sergej Curcic sought to dispense some rough justice; more tellingly, Flanagan stormed off the ice, smashing his stick against the wall on his way back to the locker room. Bronte and Wood, though, were unruffled. Short-handed, they combined for Wood’s hat-trick goal after Bronte skated round the back of Mitic’s net.
The only blot on the evening for the strike force came with five seconds left when Bronte failed with a penalty shot that would have made him the outright leading point-scorer in the contest. Instead he had to settle for 12 points and a share of the lead with Spain’s Liam O’Hare. Wood, who was the leading goalscorer with nine, ended with 11 points from five games.
Australia’s head coach, Canada-born Steve Laforet, hailed another step forward for his adopted country’s hockey program. The 41-year-old, for many years a player and later coach with Melbourne Ice, said: “We’ve woken up a lot of countries around the world. We’re not just a little country in the south-east of the world any more, suddenly we’re a big blip on the map for hockey and for our program.”
Speaking during the tournament in an interview on Ice Hockey Australia’s Facebook page, he added: “It’s not just the guys who’ve shown up for this tournament, it’s all the people back home who’ve done all the work to get concepts and systems for us. They’ve all done very, very well for us.”
For many, Australia’s success was a surprise. The team had been relegated from this level in 2015, suffering chastening defeats to Spain (14-4) and Romania (18-3) along the way. But under Laforet, the youth program regrouped to bounce back at the first attempt with victory in Sofia, Bulgaria last year. Now he and his players are believers in their system … and know that it brings results.
“No team is going to change the way we play,” the coach said. “We know our systems. We took a little bit of time off from that [against the Netherlands] and it cost us two goals.”
Australia now advances to Division II Group A for next season, while Spain goes home with silver medals. Despite its defeat in the final game, Serbia has the consolation of a medal placing.
The host nation edged out the Netherlands to take bronze by virtue of a 3-2 win on the opening night thanks to goals from Djumic, Viktor Kastel and Dusan Grkovic. A 3-2 success on the final afternoon saw Iceland consign winless Belgium to last place and relegation to Division IIIA.Click here for tournament scores and stats