QUEENSTOWN, New Zealand – New Zealand’s Ice Blacks fell at the last hurdle as Australia’s Mighty Roos held their nerve to win the three-game series and the Trans-Tasman Challenge that were part of the biannual New Zealand Winter Games.
New Zealand surprised Australia by winning the first test 4-1 at the Queenstown Ice Arena. But Australia squared the series with a 2-0 win in the second test.
The final test was a thriller. The scores were level at 3-all after regulation time and remained unchanged after five minutes of overtime.
The game and the series was decided on a penalty shot shootout that Australia won 2-0 to win the game 5-3. Brendan McDowell and captain Thomas Powell scored for Australia.
New Zealand goalie Aston Brookes must have nightmares every time he faces a shootout because he also came out on the wrong side when the Red Devils beat the Southern Stampede in the final of the New Zealand Ice Hockey League at the same venue in 2012.
But it was an encouraging performance by the Ice Blacks because Australia plays in a grade above them in the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship program and are ranked 33rd in the world and New Zealand 38th. A capacity crowd filled the arena and supported New Zealand in all three games.
The first win was only the second time that New Zealand has beaten Australia at ice hockey in 19 games between the two countries.
In the final game Australia had the upper hand when it led against New Zealand 2-1 after the second period.
New Zealand had opportunities to dominate the game in the first two periods through a series of power plays. But the Australian defence was bullet proof under pressure and shut New Zealand out.
Goalie Charles Smart was having a superb game and was backed by defenders James Woodman, Per Daniel Goransson and the Ice Blacks attackers were shut out.
It sapped the confidence of the Ice Blacks, especially when they had a two-man advantage on the ice on two occasions.
The game changed in the first five minutes of the third period when Alexander Polozov and Nicholas Henderson scored goals and the Ice Blacks led 3-2.
Australian head coach Brad Vigon knew that the Ice Blacks would be competitive and the series would be close.
The Mighty Roos only brought 17 players to Queenstown and it would be a tough assignment against a fired up Ice Blacks team that was desperate for another win against their big brothers across the Tasman Sea.
New Zealand played its first ice hockey game against Australia at the 1987 IIHF World Championship D-Pool in Perth when they were thrashed 58-0, which was a world record score at that time.
That game still grates with New Zealand hockey stalwarts who relished the 5-4 win at the New Zealand Winter Games at Dunedin in 2009 and wanted more.
The 4-1 win in the first game at Queenstown meant a lot to the New Zealand fans and they pinned their hopes on a series win.
But Vigon had other ideas. “We knew they were going to come out hard on their home ice and they made us pay for a few basic errors,” he said.
Australia tightened its defence and made it more difficult for the Ice Blacks to reach the net in the final two tests.
“We focused on a few key things and I was happy with our speed and intensity,” Vigon said.
Ice hockey was an important part of the first two New Zealand Winter Games in 2009 and 2011 and attracted the largest crowds for any of the snow and ice sports.
But the timing clashed with the final rounds of the Australian Ice Hockey League and some of the top Australian players were not available.
The scheduling was better this year as the test series came a week after the finals of the Australian league.
“We enjoyed being part of this series as we know that it greatly benefits both countries and adds more history to the fierce sporting rivalry between us,” Vigon said.
“We believe that the timing is perfect as both countries prepare for their 2018 World Championship events.
“It gives our coaching staff a chance to have a good look at some of the young and new players competing for spots on next year’s World Championship team.”
Australia had five rookies in its team and New Zealand six for the three-game series.
Two of the Australians who helped their chances were Swedish-born defender Per Daniel Goransson (31) and goalie Nicholas Novysedlak (22), who were both playing in their first senior internationals for the Mighty Roos.
Goransson played his hockey in Europe until 2009 and then had a gap until he emigrated to Australia and played for the Northern Vikings in Perth in 2014. He has been a member of the Perth Thunder league team for the last two years and now has permanent Australian residency.
Novysedlak was born in Queensland and in 2009, at the age of 15, became the youngest goalie to play in the AIHL. He has played for the Australian under-18 and under-20 teams at World Championships. He played a key role in Australia's second test 2-0 win when he saved all 33 shots and did not concede any goals and was named MVP for the game.
Paris Heyd was aged 19 and was the new boy off the block for New Zealand when he scored the winning goal to give New Zealand its first win against Australia at Dunedin in 2009.
It was the second game of the New Zealand Winter Games and was a shock upset because Australia had outclassed the Ice Blacks 8-2 the previous night.
Heyd’s goal came with 4:30 left and gave New Zealand the win 5-4. He had scored his first international goal the previous night.
“It was a very special time. It was a great time. I was still pretty young then and new to the team,” Heyd recalled.
“It was a good start to my international career. It couldn't have gone much better. If you get the chance to get a win like that you take it. It doesn’t come along that often.”
The three-game Trans-Tasman Challenge in Queenstown was the fourth time that Ice Blacks had played Australia at home.
“We had quite a large squad and had the depth,” Heyd said. “We had a young team and were fit after coming off our league season.”
Heyd is the home-grown super-star of New Zealand ice hockey and is recognized internationally for his speed and skill on skates.
He scored the decisive goal in the second period when New Zealand beat Australia 4-1 in the first test.
Heyd recognizes the influence of imports and how they have improved the standard of New Zealand ice hockey. Three of them have double citizenship and qualified to play against Australia.
Captain Bert Haines comes from Canada and first played for the Ice Blacks in 2010 and this was his first win against Australia.
“It’s an amazing honour to captain the Ice Blacks against Australia,” he said.
“It’s a plus mark for New Zealand hockey to beat Australia because we are a step behind them in terms of our development. To win a test against a team ranked above us was extra-special.”
Haines lives at Queenstown and likes playing on one of the smallest rinks in New Zealand. Canberra is the only venue in Australia that has a similar size rink.
“It’s a tight arena and you feel the crowd all around you and as the home team you feed off that,” he said.
“A good percentage of our team grew up playing on smaller rinks. It makes the game a bit tighter. We have a skilled team but also a team used to playing a physical game. The small rink helped us.”
New Zealand was buoyed by the silver medal it won behind China at the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division II Group B in Auckland in April and the New Zealand Winter Games has consolidated the gains.
This has pleased Haines: “Our game continues to evolve and continues to improve each year. We are on an upswing and heading in the right direction.”
The other key naturalized players in the Ice Blacks squad at the New Zealand Winter Games were Matt Schneider from Canada and former Estonian national team player Alexander Polozov, who has been living in New Zealand for seven years.
This was the first time that Schneider (32) has played for the Ice Blacks and he added experience to the New Zealand team.
He was drafted for the Calgary Flames and went to two camps but did not crack the roster and that ended his dream of playing in the NHL.
He came to New Zealand in 2012 and was working in a winery when a friend at the hostel told him about New Zealand ice hockey.
“I came down to Queenstown, contacted the Southern Stampede team, enjoyed my first season and decided to stick around.”
Polozov (31) represented Estonia at six IIHF events with junior and the men’s national team 2003 to 2008 and played professional hockey in Europe before relocating to New Zealand.
He has played in the New Zealand Ice Hockey League for the Botany Swarm and the Red Devils since then and made his debut for the Ice Blacks at this year’s World Championship tournament in Auckland.
Polozov justified his New Zealand citizenship when he scored two goals to give the Ice Blacks only their second win against their Trans-Tasman rivals, the Mighty Roos.
The sell-out partisan crowd at the Queenstown Ice Arena erupted with joy because they recognized the significance of the 4-1 win at the New Zealand Winter Games.
It was only the second time in 17 games over 30 years that the Ice Blacks had beaten Australia at ice hockey.
Polozov’s goal went into the net less than two minutes from the end of the first period and gave the Ice Blacks belief as they went into the first break at the end of the first period leading 2-0.
His second goal in the middle of the third period gave the Ice Blacks a three-goal cushion and the determination to hold on to this advantage.
This is Polozov's first year with the Ice Blacks and the second goal was engineered by Schneider, who was playing his first game in the New Zealand jersey.
Schneider forced an Australian error when he pressured the puck carrier and was on hand with the assist.
It was the brilliance of experienced international Paris Heyd with a breakaway down the centre with only the goalie to beat that allowed the Ice Blacks to consolidate its position in the second period.
Heyd, the best home-grown Kiwi, does not miss goals when one-on-one with the keeper.
It was Heyd, who made the first Ice Blacks goal with a well-directed pass to Perth Thunder player Andrew Cox that he put into the net during a power play at 12:45 in the first period.
Australia’s only goal came toward the end of the second period when Brendan McDowell netted with a quick wrist shot. He was assisted by Mitch Humphries and Tommy Powell.
The Ice Blacks win was built around a solid defence with experienced goalie Rick Parry having an outstanding game. He faced 36 shots at goal and saved 35. Parry was backed by defencemen Bert Haines and Blake Jackson. Australian goalie Charles Smart conceded four goals from 18 shots.
Two rookies to international hockey played a key role in helping the Mighty Roos square the series when Australia beat New Zealand 2-0 in the second game.
Goransson netted the decisive goal from a power play midway through the first period to give Australia a 1-0 lead that it held to the end.
Captain Thomas Powell added the bonus goal in the last five seconds when a desperate Ice Blacks team pulled their goalie.
The Australian game was built round a tight defence that blocked all New Zealand attempts to put the puck into the net.
Australia owned their defensive zone and were not going to allow the Ice Black forwards to penetrate the defensive ring. Goransson was part of this and was backed by assistant captain Matthew Lindsay, Robert Haselhurst and Jack Carpenter.
But the player who best epitomized the Australian defensive effort was goalie Novysedlak, who was playing his first senior international for the Mighty Roos.
He was a rock-like barrier and stopped all 33 shots that the Ice Black attackers flung at him. He was like a contortionist in his movements and made several miracle saves.
He repulsed the many shots that star New Zealand forward Paris Heyd hit at the goal and probably his best save came midway through the second period when he pushed out his toe to stop a shot by Connor Harrison that looked like a certain goal.
His most difficult time came during a power play in the middle of the second period when the Ice Blacks forwards looked slick and were peppering the goal.
The Australian defence buttoned down the hatches after this and the New Zealand attack became disjointed when the players tired in the third period.
Powell, and Michael Humphries were the best Australian forwards.
Heyd was the best New Zealand forward and made frequent forays into the Australian danger zone. He made several bursts down the centre that should have resulted in goals. But he was too quick for the backup players and rebounds from the goalie went begging. He gained a few turnovers.
Goalie Daniel Lee, in his first senior international, let in only one goal and made 29 saves.