GALATI – A disciplined Romanian team barged ahead to win the top spot at the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division II Group A on home ice in Galati.
In front of an atmospheric home crowd of 3,200 the hosts emphatically brushed aside Spain 6-0 during the final day to win promotion to the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group B. While Romania rejoiced in front of their fans, Spain bowed out with their head down as their final-day defeat sent them down to Division IIB. Newly promoted Australia celebrated a surprise silver, while Serbia built up steam after a shaky start to get their hands on the bronze medals.
Having the best scorers and the tightest defence was the combination for success as Romania racked up four wins and a sole defeat. Romania's Ede Mihaly topped the scoring charts with nine points (8+1), teammate Botond Flinta was joint leader in plus-minus with +9 and right at the back while netminder Zoltan Toke conceded the least amount of goals. Martin Lacroix, who made his debut as head coach for Romania, was in full of praise of his players who stuck to the outlined game plan to the letter.
"We conceded five goals in five games, but we were not playing defensive hockey," said Lacroix. "We kept it very simple and not taking too many risks in the defensive and neutral zone. We scored a lot of goals in the tournament, and the players were very responsible throughout the tournament," he continued.
Pre-tournament favourites Romania got themselves in the driving seat from the outset at the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division II Group A. Mihaly had led the way and netted five goals as the hosts raced past Belgium in their opener, 9-1. They overcame their next hurdle, a physical encounter with neighbours Serbia, 4-1 before their course set straight for promotion temporarily derailed by a valiant Icelandic team. Despite being bombarded by 41 Romanian shots, the hosts were blanked as the Nordic nation recorded a historical 2-0 win with goals from Kristjan Kristinsson and Aron Knutsson. By the time round four came around, Romania required a must-win against newcomers and undefeated Australia in order to have fate in their own hands ahead of the final round of games.
Australia's captain Lliam Webster picked out Jozef Rezek, who came flying down the left side to break the deadlock as his shot flied past Toke's glove and into the net to silence the home crowd with 2:36 to go of the first frame. But Lacroix's recent line changes immediately paid dividends for Romania. Csanad Fodor's line with Norbert and Szilard Rokaly sparked Romania back to life and only 30 seconds after Australia's opener, the hosts were back on level terms. Hugo Gecse flipped in a shot from the blueline with Szilard Rokaly netting the rebound left by Anthony Kimlin.
Romania got back into control and brushed off their first period scare by adding a pair of goals in each of the two remaining frames. All four lines were on target as Romania ran out as comfortable 5-1 winners. It was to be Australia only defeat during the tournament and one their head coach Brad Vigon sportingly credited a better opponent.
"I was awake at night after that game and wondered I had chosen the wrong strategy or the wrong game plan. In the end I must say they were better than us in every single facet of the game. I can live with myself when you get beaten by a team that had a better night than you," said Vigon, who had plenty of positives to say on his battling team who finished just a point behind Romania.
"Character is our number-one criteria. We have a group of guys who are playing for each other and that is our biggest strength," said Vigon, a former national team player for Australia who now is working wonders with a team built on strong foundations starting from the back.
"When we have a goalie like Anthony Kimlin we have a chance in every game, but I also knew coming into this tournament that any team would be capable to beat you in this division which has proven to be the case. But we have a lot more depth going forward back in Australia that we hope to add to our team next year which also could strengthen up our lower end lines," he continued.
While Australia will be looking ahead for next year as a possible contender for promotion, another team wanting to step up a division will be Serbia. Arriving in Galati with as roster where 14 players this year competed in the Hungarian-Romanian MOL Liga, they had hopes that 2017 might have been their year. But an overtime loss against Australia and succumbing to Romania during the first two round of games dented any hopes of promotion.
"We had very high expectations coming into this tournament and we wanted to play for the first spot," said head coach Nemanja Jankovic on his team that throughout the week combined highs such as a 9-2 win against Belgium and beating Iceland 6-0 with lows such as losing on overtime against relegated Spain.
"We are still young and most of the guys play in the MOL Liga so they will improve with time and experience. Overall you have to be happy, but we underachieved a bit, especially in crucial moments of certain matches, such as our overtime losses against Australia and Spain," said Jankovic.
For fourth-placed Belgium, Gil Paelnick was back in his second spell as their head coach. Having previously guided Belgium to three silver medals in a row, his return was hampered by the team's lack of preparation which saw his Belgium finish fourth with plenty of room for improvement ahead of next year.
"The first practice I had with the entire team was here in Romania. The level of the players is good, but you cannot gel as lines by just throwing them together," he said.
The biggest surprise of the tournament was undoubtedly Iceland's victory over Romania. A historical first for the Nordic team, whose goaltender Dennis Hedstrom was in inspirational form, saved 41 Romanian shots as Iceland blanked the hosts 2-0. Two debutants at this level were the scorers, 18-year-old Kristjan Kristinsson backhanded Iceland's opener during the second frame, before Aron Knutsson doubled the lead with 5:53 left of the game.
"Romania did not think we would compete at all with them. We had a bit of luck, but also fought for every centimetre out there. That sums up the guys we have here on the team. When they know it is impossible, they go out of their way to prove you wrong. But then when things are fully possible, they seem to make it harder than it actually is," said Iceland head coach Magnus Blarand as in their next game after toppling Romania, they came down to earth again with a bang, losing against Belgium 9-3. In the end Iceland had to settle for fifth place with six points but with the added youngsters to the roster passing the baptism of fire at this level bodes well for the future.
Spain, who last year finished second in this division on home ice, got off to a bad start in Galati. Beginning with three straight defeats they were unable to reverse the trend. They got their sole points on board following an overtime win against Serbia and will drop down to the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division II Group B.
"Our goal was to stay in the division, but we knew it was going to be a tough task and we needed to play at our best. During our game against Iceland, we outplayed them but just couldn't score and that cost us. Now we got to regroup, and try to win the Division IIB next year," said Spain's head coach Mauricio Mansi. Click here for scores and statistics.