VENTSPILS, Latvia – In one of the tightest contests in this year’s international season, four out of six teams still have the chance to earn promotion to the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship in Ottawa.
The Czech Republic, Norway, Japan and Austria battle for the top position in the last round on Saturday while host Latvia can still win a medal on home ice in Ventspils at the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship Division I Group A.
Kazakhstan, the team that was demoted from the top division to the second tier last year, lost all four games and will be relegated again. The Kazakhs, who missed some of their top players due to pregnancy, go down the ladder and will play in Division I Group B next year.
The teams have been evenly matched in the first four rounds. Host Latvia started surprisingly well, defeating Kazakhstan and Japan, but clearly lost the following two games. Japan led the standings after the third day of play, and the Czechs came atop after the Friday round.
Czechs rebound from opening day loss
The Czechs have a well-balanced team with goals coming from several lines and strong goaltending from Radka Lhotska, who saved 96.34% of the shots on her goal.
After losing the first game against Japan 4-3, the team of Karel Manhart replied with three straight wins against Norway (2-1), Latvia (5-0) and Kazakhstan (3-2).
“We’re playing well here and we try hard and we never stop. The team spirit really puts us forward,” said captain Alena Polenska.
After three wins in a row the dream of playing with the elite nations next year has come closer.
“We dream a lot about going to Ottawa,” the 22-year-old forward of the Brown University said. “Every night.”
With nine points in four games the Czechs lead the standings and need a win against neighbours Austria to secure the gold medals.
“We definitely hope to win,” she said. “But we know every day is a new game. Every team here can beat anybody. So we have to battle hard.”
The Czechs have developed enough talent in the last few years to play and stay in the top division of the U18 Women’s World Championship. About half of the players on the roster have brought this experience with them.
“Some players here are young and have had experience at the top level with the U18 team,” Polenska said. “They come down here and try to get up to the top division.”
Norway knocking on door
If the Czechs fail to win the game, Norway seems to be ready to challenge them for first place with just one point less in the standings.
The Norwegians started well, defeating Austria 7-2, but suffered a 2-1 loss against Czechs that could be deciding in the end. They followed with two more wins against Kazakhstan (2-1 OT) and Japan (4-2).
The Norwegians were trailing 2-0 when they eventually turned the game against Japan on Friday.
“Japan is really good. It’s hard to win when you get two goals against you, but you need to keep going for 60 minutes and that’s what we did,” said Andrea Dalen, who scored three goals and six points in four games.
Tomorrow they need to beat Latvia and hope for a Czech loss to keep their dreams for gold alive.
“They have a really good goalie. We need to keep getting people on the goal and keep shooting,” said Dalen, who plays at the University of North Dakota together with goalkeeper Jorid Dagfinrud.
“We need to keep focusing on playing the game and then we’ll count the points after the game.”
The Scandinavians, who played in the top division from 1990 to 1997, missed the promotion last year and had to settle for silver. Whether it will be better this year depends not only on their own, but also on the Czechs’ performance.
Slim chances for Austria, Japan
Japan’s chances to get back to the top division after 2009 have become marginal after losing 4-2 to Norway. To win the event, the Japanese have to defeat Kazakhstan in regulation time and at the same time hope that the Czech Republic and Norway both lose their last games in regulation time.
Austria on the other hand has had ups and downs. Losses and wins alternated for a 2-2 record after four games.
The inconsistency wasn’t a big surprise for Martin Kogler, the GM of the youngest team at this tournament.
“We have never beaten Japan or Norway at Women’s World Championships,” he said. But he’s more optimistic for tomorrow’s game against leader Czech Republic.
“They suit us better,” Kogler explained. “But the Czechs have a very compact team. They showed it with three consecutive wins. We have at least the chance to win against them. On a good they we can beat them.”
The Austrians need to defeat the Czech Republic in regulation time and hope that Norway loses its game against Latvia.
The last round on Saturday definitely promises lots of excitement for hockey fans at the Olympic Centre’s ice rink in Ventspils.