SOFIA – Belgium fulfilled its expectations and won the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division II Group B before China and Bulgaria to earn promotion to Division II Group A for 2013. But the decisive step was not an easy one to get.
The final game of the tournament saw Belgium play China for the top spot. In the previous round one of the surprises happened during the great week of action in the Winter Sports Palace in Sofia when China lost to host Bulgaria, 6-3. Under these circumstances, China had to win in regulation time against Belgium to end up in first place with the equal number of points.
However, the intrigue seemed to be over after less than seven minutes of play when Belgium scored a power-play goal to extend the lead to 4-0. The favourite started with speed and aggressiveness. The first line of head coach Jozef Lejeune (Vincent Morgan - Mitch Morgan - Olivier Roland) continued to impress the crowd with their crisp actions.
Roland opened the scoring at 2:25. Ben Vercammen from the second unit made it 2-0 just 49 second later. Then it was time for the Morgan brothers. Mitch scored at 4:59 and Vincent capitalized on the man advantage 98 seconds later.
China looked in knock-down position, but got a chance to stop the rout after Jan Raekelboom was called for hooking at 6:47. It took the Asians just five seconds to score on the power play after a great slap shot from the blue line by the defenceman Mingxi Li.
Then the Chinese took the initiative and Yidong Qu cut the deficit to two goals at 10:31. The team led by Japanese head coach Keisuke Araki even had a couple of good chances to make it 4-3, but instead Belgium was able to score again with Roland’s second goal of the game at 12:22.
At the end of the period Mitch Morgan was in the penalty box for slashing and China was very close to put the puck into the net again, but the 34-year-old goalkeeper Bjorn Steijlen was solid and made amends for his bad positioning on the second Chinese tally.
“Several players thought that China was unable to stage a comeback. Together with the inexperience of some young players, that gave our opponent the chance to get back into the game,” Lejeune explained after the game.
In the second period China had a shot advantage (15-9), but only Belgium scored. Roland completed his hat trick at 11:07 and nine seconds before the next intermission talented 20-year-old defenceman Lorenzo Maas, who plays for EHC Krefeld Niederrhein in the German third-tier Oberliga, made it 7-2.
A double-minor high-sticking penalty to Timo Dewin changed the momentum in the beginning of the third period. China scored two PP goals by Hao Zhang (2:43) and Weiyang Zhang (4:00) and then Nan Fu (4:59) had a shorthanded tally for the 7-5 goal.
Coach Lejeune immediately took a time-out to re-group his players and it made a difference. Until the end China didn’t score another goal, but Belgium had an insurance goal, a beautiful one by Vincent Morgan with 3:05 left in regulation time. The final score of 8-5 meant gold and promotion for Belgium.
Well known and respected coaches as Canadiens Jean Perron (head coach of Israel) and George Kingston (Mexico) were not shy of compliments for the winning team in the tournament. “The Belgian team works like a machine. Everybody knows his role. It’s a very well balanced and organized team,” said Perron. “They play hockey as it should be played - quick with good technical skills,” was the opinion of Kingston, who was very high on Maas.
“The difference with the other teams was the speed of execution and skating. We had a young group with a great presence of focus and will to win the title. The rejuvenation of our team is a process that started sometime ago and has not missed its target,” said head coach Lejeune. “This group has clearly determined what the purpose of the campaign was and which measures were in order to achieve it. They have decided this together and promptly executed, showing a great team discipline.”
And what he thinks about the future and next challenge in the upper level? “With the right preparations and a motivated team, I think we belong in this group and may not exclude a medal,” Lejeune said.
“Lorenzo Maas, Mitch Morgan, Jens Engelen, Bryan Kolodziejczyk – there are several young players who in the near future will play a leading role in our team. The arrival of Olivier Roland is an important acquisition to the first line. An important role is there for our team captain Vincent Morgan, who gets much respect with his no-nonsense approach.”
Silver for China, Bulgaria’s bronze lining
Before the final day China was not assured second place in the tournament. In a matter of four days Bulgaria went from the disappointing loss to Mexico and the theoretical danger of relegation to impressive wins against China and Israel and even a real chance for silver medals. Bulgaria had many problems with injuries to key players.
The record-breaking veteran goalie Konstantin Mihaylov (born 1964) participated in his 23rd World Championship and started with 37 saves in the win over South Africa (4-1) and 59 against Belgium before he was taken out after 35 minutes.
Bulgaria lost not only this game (14-3), but the hero of so many close contests in its recent ice hockey history. Mihaylov had a foot injury, which prevented him to play anymore in the tournament. He finished with impressive 92.3% save percentage. Georgi Mladenov also missed the last three games, Atanas Atanasov was out for two and Petar Hadzitonev and Martin Giurov played with injuries through key games.
Against Mexico there were too many penalties and undisciplined outburst. The Mexican team made use of it and took a 5-0 lead in the first period, scoring four times on power play. But the game was not over. Originally the third goaltender, 18-year-old Nikola Nikolov took over from Teodor Asenov in the end of the first period, and in the second period the “Russian line” was very productive with Alexei Yotov and Stanislav Muhachev putting in two goals each, which brought the score to 6-4.
In the start of the third period Martin Boyadjiev cut the deficit to 6-5 on a power play, but then Mexico went up a gear and defeated the hosts 8-5.
“The Bulgarians played a very physical, most of the times over the line, style and we took our chances on the power play,” said George Kingston.
“We had five injured players after the game with Belgium. Two years ago, when the Championships were in Mexico we won against the host 5-2, but it was a very difficult game. This time around they scored first and we lost our composure. We showed nerves in the first period. We outplayed them in the next two periods, but the damage was too big to overcome,” explained Bulgarian head coach Georgi Milanov.
There was a possibility of a three-team tie with the goal difference in the head-to-head games as the deciding factor, but after Mexico took a point in the game with Israel (5-4 loss in OT) those calculations were gone. Then Bulgaria had a coming-from-behind win against China. Four power-play goals turned the game to a 6-3 win for Bulgaria. Yotov and Muhachev had five points each.
In the last day Mexico defeated South Africa 2-0, but even before it was all over for the South Africans, who have to go back to Division III in 2013 with zero points.
In a hard-fought tactical battle Bulgaria was able to get another victory, this time over Israel – 3:2 in a penalty shootout. Showing good team character and better holding of their nerves, the host took the lead twice, but Israel came back and forced overtime. Both teams had a chance playing on power play in the extra period, but didn’t score.
Nobody was able to score on a penalty shot until the seventh one was taken by Georgi Iskrenov, who prevailed over Israeli goalkeeper Jevgeni Gusin. Then it was time for teenager Nikola Nikolov to shine. Eliezer Sherbatov missed and the Bulgarian team was full of joy finishing on third place. In the end it was two points Bulgaria won in the game, but it also lost the one point it needed to eventually claim the silver medals, that went to China.
With the injuries, this bronze medal was quite an achievement. “I am very happy with the team’s performance. The players don’t have many competitive games during the season, so we play almost from World Championships to a World Championships,” said Georgi Milanov.
“Knowing what the other teams are capable of I was afraid of the outcome, but we played very well in front of the enthusiastic crowd in the last two games. The young players made me look more optimistic into the future. In Nikola Nikolov (GAA 2.87; 91.30 % SVS) we finally found a successor of Konstantin Mihaylov in the net. Martin Nikolov (born 1994) also played well and Georgi Iskrenov (4+1) did a great job.”
Talented son of former football star the fan favourite
The rookie Georgi Iskrenov was a fan favourite in Sofia not only because of his famous father.
Iskrenov plays in the U.S. for the Washington Junior Nationals and is the son of Bozhidar Iskrenov, one of the most exciting Bulgarian footballers of the ‘80s, who played in the 1986 FIFA World Cup.
Iskrenov made his debut in the first day of the tournament, when he was celebrating his 22nd birthday. He scored the first goal against South Africa and received the Best Player award. Then he had a goal against Belgium too, two points versus China (1+1) and scored the game wining penalty shot against Israel.
More: Scores & Stats, Photo Gallery
1. Belgium 15 points (promoted)
2. China 9
3. Bulgaria 8
4. Mexico 7
5. Israel 6
6. RSA 0 (relegated)
Individual Awards selected by the Tournament Directorate:
Best Goalkeeper: Bjorn Steijlen, Belgium
Best Defenceman: Niki de Herdt, Belgium
Best Forward: Stanislav Muhachev, Bulgaria