MELBOURNE – In front of their home support, Australia went undefeated to win the gold medal in the IIHF World Championship Division II Group A and earn promotion to Division I.
The Mighty Roos, ranked 34th in the world, defeated the 29th-ranked Serbia 4-2 in the final game. Australian forward and tournament MVP Joseph Hughes scored the game-winning goal and he was left speechless, after leading his team to victory.
“It’s hard to sum up how great this feels. I just can’t put it into words,” said Hughes, 26, who also won the award for tournament top scorer, with seven goals and four assists. “It’s absolutely phenomenal to win in front of our home fans and they gave us so much support. We all worked hard, and this is a very memorable win for us all.”
Australia had an ideal start to the championships, as they convincingly defeated Mexico 11-1 in their first game and held off Belgium 5-3 in their second match. The Mighty Roos then shut out New Zealand 2-0 on Saturday, before clinching gold against Serbia the following night.
In a tightly contested final game, it was Serbia who opened the scoring in the second period after a goalless opening. On the power play, forward Nenad Rakovic deflected Branko Mamic’s point shot past Australian goaltender Matthew Ezzy.
But the lead didn’t last long, as just nine seconds later, Greg Oddy equalized. Linemate Vladan Stranksy won the puck behind the Serbian net and sent a pass in front to Oddy. And the Australian captain made no mistake, sending a rising shot over the glove of goaltender Milan Lukovic.
Then from an offensive zone faceoff, Australia grabbed the lead through David Upton. Thomas Powell’s shot from the left hash marks was snuck through the pads of Lukovic and the puck on the goal line. Upton came crashing through to poke the puck home.
In the second period, Hughes made the score 3-1 in favour of Australia, with a brilliant wrist shot from the high slot. After a neat passing play through centre ice between Powell and alternate captain Lliam Webster, Hughes beat Lukovic over his right shoulder as he entered the offensive zone, sending the capacity crowd of 1,550 fans wild. Lukovic was then replaced in net by Arsenije Rankovic after allowing three goals on seven shots.
Serbia attempted a fight-back in the third period, and just over a minute in, they were back in the game through a shorthanded goal by Marko Kovacevic. With Mamic in the box for high sticking, Nemanja Vucurevic caused a turnover in the Australian zone. He then made a pass to Kovacevic streaking down the left wing, and the Serbian captain sent a low shot past Ezzy.
With the game in the balance and time winding down, Serbia with its 44-21 shot advantage piled on the pressure, but Australia’s defence held firm and Ezzy denied everything that was thrown at him. With just over a minute remaining, Serbia looked to gain control of the puck in order to pull Rankovic for the extra attacker. But Australia’s youngest player, 17-year-old Nathan Webster, forced a turnover and Webster went the other way, blasting a wrist shot beyond Rankovic to seal the win.
After the victory, Australian coach Vladimir Rubes praised his team’s commitment and work ethic: “It’s a great feeling and everyone played well,” he said. “Serbia played their best game of the tournament, but we had strong defence and goaltending which won us the game.”
Serbia coach Pavle Kavcic rued his team’s missed chances, but vowed his side will come back stronger next year.
“We tried to play hard and had many shots. But we took too many penalties. We have a young team with a lot of changes, so we will be back next year,” the Slovene said. “Congratulations to Australia. I’m happy for them.”
New Zealand was the surprise success of the tournament, as they picked up the silver medal, finishing ahead of the highly favoured Serbs, who won bronze.
Belgium finished fourth this time with nine points, the same number like New Zealand and Serbia, and Mexico came fifth. DPR Korea is relegated as their team withdrew before the tournament began due to financial reasons.
This is by far the best result for the New Zealanders ever as they have never before medalled in Division II. The best placing before was the fourth-place finish in Division II last year in Estonia.
Ice Blacks’ captain Corey Down, who announced his retirement from international ice hockey following the tournament, was ecstatic with his team’s silver medal.
“It’s amazing. We had a great team here and to win the silver medal is absolutely awesome,” said Down, whose team was anchored by stellar goaltending from Rick Parry and the tournament’s best netminder, Zak Nothling.
New Zealand coach Jeffery Bonazzo was equally impressed, but believed his team could have won the competition. “These boys deserve it [silver] and it’s huge for Zak [Nothling] to get the best goalie award,” he said. “I’m not surprised at our performance and we could have won gold.”
In an opening-game shock, Belgium upset Serbia 3-2, but were crushed 5-0 by New Zealand. Kristof van Looy was the team’s best. Belgian coach Jozef Lejeune was understandably disappointed with the outcome after such a promising start.
“We had a good preparation, but had a complete breakdown. That’s life,” said Lejeune.
Mexico were outmatched in their games, but had solid performances from captain Fernando Ugarte, and goaltender Alfonso De Alba.
Australia last won Division II gold in 2009, when the tournament was held in Newcastle, Australia, but they were relegated a year later. With this year’s victory, Australia is hoping to build off their success and remain in Division I.
More information: Scores & Statistics, Photos.
1. Australia 15
2. New Zealand 9
3. Serbia 9
4. Belgium 9
5. Mexico 3
6. DPR Korea 0
Individual Awards as selected by the Tournament Directorate
Best Goalkeeper: Zak Nothling, New Zealand
Best Defenceman: Nikola Bibic, Serbia
Best Forward: Joseph Hughes, Australia