Belgium’s under-18 national team made an instant return to Division IIB after taking top spot in this week’s 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division III Group A that took place in Erzurum in the east of Turkey. But it took a late goal from Ben Coolen – his fifth of the tournament – to claim a vital victory over Israel and deny Mexico a second successive promotion.
Going into Sunday’s games, four teams had at least a theoretical chance of top spot. Belgium and Mexico were out in front, but Israel and Turkey could still force a three-way tie on nine points if results went their way. The Mexicans were in action first, and a solid 5-2 victory over Chinese Taipei condemned the Asian team to relegation while ending Israel’s hopes of moving up.
That did not stop the Israelis from giving Belgium a stern test, though. Midway through the first period, captain Yuval Halpert stole the puck away from a Belgian D-man on the doorstep and turned to fire the opening goal past Arne Waumans. However, it took less than two minutes for the Belgians to get back on track when Akke Klijsen shot home from close range to tie the game.
Subsequently, the bulk of the action was around the Israeli net. Belgium had the better of the chances, but struggled to really test Israel’s goalie Yehonatan Reisinger. He ended the tournament as the top-ranked goalie, with a save percentage of 94.2% after allowing eight goals in the four games he played. The third-period even brought Israel opportunities to forge ahead once again as the team enjoyed three power plays but failing to convert. Over the course of the tournament, the Israeli power play was the least effective in the competition, managing just two goals for a conversion rate of 6.67 per cent.
That left the game tied going into the final minutes and meant Mexico had one skate in Division II: an overtime win for Belgium would put the two teams level on 11 points, and the Mexicans had a 3-2 victory from their meeting on Friday which would give them the edge in a tie.
Then came Coolen. The 17-year-old forward from the HYC Herentals club in the BeNeLiga came into this tournament after a handy contribution to Belgium’s U20 IIB campaign, and made the key play here. He chased a Jeffie Versin clearance down the ice, won a clash with Israel’s Shahar Lavon on the blue line and swooped in on the net to score the decisive goal with a little over four minutes to play. Delight for Belgium, despair for Mexico: the winners admitted that their evening had been a rather more stressful than they had hoped.
Coolen finished the tournament with 10 (5+5) points, sharing first place in the scoring charts with Bulgaria’s Konstantin Rangelov and the competition’s top goal scorer, Luis Cruz of Mexico. The Belgian was also selected as the top forward by the tournament directorate, with Gonzalo Hagerman of Mexico getting the award for best defenceman and home goalie Muhammet Mutanoglu completing the prize winners.
There was still something riding on the final game of the day – Turkey could not challenge for top spot but had the chance to finish with a bronze medal if it could defeat Bulgaria in front of its home crowd in Erzurum. However, the host missed out in a 1-3 loss. Bulgaria took third place with Israel edging the Turks for fourth thanks to a 2-0 victory when the nations met on the opening day of the competition. Click here for scores and stats. Click here to watch the full games.