Zubrus inspires Lithuania to win

NHLer scores in hosts’ opening win; Croatia upsets British

21.04.2014
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Lithuania celebrates one of their four goals in the 4-0 blanking of the Netherlands to start the event on home ice in Vilnius in style. Photo: Ruta Mikalkeviciute

VILNIUS – Lithuania got off the perfect start at the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group B in Vilnius recording a 4-0 win against the Netherlands. Newly promoted Croatia upset Great Britain 4-0 while Poland steamrolled Romania, 7-0.

Croatia vs. Great Britain 4-0 (2-0, 1-0, 1-0)

A solid defence while capitalizing on their chances saw Croatia record a surprise opening day win as Great Britain was welcomed to Division I Group B with a bang. Led by captain and World Championship debutant Dario Kostovic's two goals and a shutout by Mate Tomljenovic, Croatia got the perfect start as newcomers in the division recording a 4-0 win despite being outshot 18-33.

Michael Novak scored the opening goal from Croatia, while 37-year-old debutant Alan Letang capped his first appearance by getting on the scoresheet hitting home Croatia's vital third goal.

"Our strength today was our defence and goaltending," said Letang. "On the defence we kept them on the outside and in the net Tomljenovic did the saves, but everyone in the dressing room played their best hockey today."

A contest between a team relegated from Division I Group A against a newly-promoted upstart from Division 2 Group A might appear as a done deal on paper. Backed by their vocal support Great Britain began their promotion campaign according to the script by taking the game to the Croats. Bolstered by the arrival of inspirational defenceman Ben O'Connor, Great Britain dictated the play and peppered the on-song Tomljenovic from all angles during a first period with saw the Brits win the shots 14-7. But having staved off two consecutive box plays with success, it was instead Croatia who broke the deadlock against the run of play. Michael Novak sailed through on the left flank, deked defenceman David Phillips before sliding the puck low with a backhand shot past Stephen Murphy to make it 1-0 at 12:56 of the game. Soon after a Kostovic slapshot sneaked in behind Murphy with only 41 seconds to go of the first frame, which gave Great Britain head coach Doug Christiansen plenty of mull over ahead of the second period.

Having scored just five goals in their five matches last year when they got demoted, Great Britain stepped out in the second frame eager to reduce the deficit. But once again, failure to capitalize on their numerous chances instead saw Letang score on his debut and stretch the Croat's lead to three unanswered goals 7:26 into the middle frame before 6:12 into the final period the Croats got out of sight with their 4-0 goal, a second of the afternoon by Kostovic against a toothless Great Britain team.

"In the first and second periods, we had lots of opportunities and got pucks to the net, but we did not win battles at the net," said Christiansen. "We have got to pick ourselves up tomorrow. We have got to be better than we were today."

While Great Britain aims to get their first win on board and open up their goalscoring account in their next fixture against Romania, Croatia are looking for add more wins.

"If you don't aim your goals high, then what is the point of coming, so we came here with the aspirations and expectations to get a medal. We have some leaders and some veterans so if you manage to get a medal it would be a great success for Croatian hockey," said Letang as Croatia will be up against Netherlands next.

Romania vs. Poland 0-7 (0-2 0-3 0-2)

Poland began their charge for promotion by crushing a weakened Romanian team 7-0 in a match where the outcome was never in doubt.

Tomasz Malasinski and Leszek Laszkiewicz scored two goals each as Poland managed to keep Romania hemmed in their own zone for much of the game and outshot them 36-14.

"The players looked a bit nervous and made some mistakes in the first period," said Poland head coach Igor Zakharkin. "We then played spells in the game that were good, while some of them were not so good, but overall I am content with the match, but we need to remember that we did not play against the strongest opponent."

Poland is a tricky opponent for Romania even at the best of times, but arriving to Vilnius without 12 out of the 17 outfield players, including the entire first line from the roster that last year represented them in Division I Group B in Donetsk, does not make the task any easier.

The Romanian defence was in for a busy afternoon, and Poland needed 2:11 before breaking the deadlock as Pawel Dronia ripped a wrist shot which netminder Gellert Ruczuj was unable to hold on to as the puck tricked into the net through a maze of players. But despite the early setback, Romania enjoyed fine spells in the first frame where the Biro-line, made up by three brothers, Otto, Matyas and Gergo showed plenty of endeavour. But the pressure from Poland's four lines proved to be too hot to handle as fine work from Jakub Witecki along the boards saw him pick out veteran Laszkiewicz who in his 17th World Championship for Poland tipped home Poland's second at 18:07.

"We conceded two bad goals in the first period," said Romania head coach Kjell Lindqvist. "But we are here without 14-15 guys for various reasons and are especially short in defence which was very visible today."

Throughout the second period, the Poles tormented Romania with their superior speed and puckhandling, outshooting the Romanians 11-3 and adding another three goals. Malasinski scored Poland's third after 27:15 before Romania held out until 2:03 before the end of the middle frame when on the power play Aron Chmielewski instigated a move where Grzegorz Pasiut in the end hit a cross goal pass along the crease for Sebastian Kowalowka to stab home Poland's fourth. A second power-play goal arrived soon after as Rafal Dutka's shot was tipped in by captain Marcin Kolusz with 46 seconds left of the second period.

Laszkiewicz boomed home a slap shot after 42:19 for Poland's sixth of the afternoon before Ruczuj was replaced by Adrian Catrinoi Cornea in the Romanian net following Malasinski second of the evening meant 7-0 for Poland and a fine boost of morale ahead of their next opponents Lithuania, while Romania could be on the receiving end of another lopsided scored on Monday as a goal-hungry Great Britain comes calling.

Lithuania vs. Netherlands 4-0 (1-0, 0-0, 3-0)

Hosts get off to a perfect start thanks to a hard-fought team effort where the added individual stardom of Dainius Zubrus has turned Lithuania into a medal candidate.

Three final period goals from Paulius Gintautas, Dainius Zubrus and Mindaugas Kieras seal the victory for Lithuania as Mantas Armalis recorded a shutout during the most thrilling game of day 1.

"We all looked forward to this first game, to this important first game for us," said Lithuania's head coach Bernd Haake during the post-game press conference following his team's 4-0 win. "We could have scored two, three more goals in the second period after the Netherlands had put pressure on us, and it is a big win for us."

A crowd of 4,525 had gathered inside Siemens Arena in Vilnius eager to get a look at their homecoming NHL star Zubrus. And his presence inspired Lithuania from the outset as it was his first line together with Donatas Kumeliauskas and Arnoldas Bosas, who immediately charged down towards the Dutch net from first face off. However, in the next line change it was back to reality again as Dovydas Kulevicius got sent off for hooking. But the spirit of Zubrus was visible even in box play when he snapped up the puck as the Dutchmen piled up the pressure to the joy of the vociferous home crowd.

When the first Lithuania goal finally arrived, it was Zubrus’ linemates who took care of business. Bosas snapped up the puck in neutral zone and charged down along the boards on the left before carefully picking out Kumeliauskas, who lashed it past Ian Meierdres.

Zubrus almost got on the scoresheet as the second period was in its infancy before the Netherlands for long periods took over proceedings and pinned down the hosts in their defensive zone, but had very few scoring chances to show for their puck possession while the Lithuanians soon fought themselves back into the game showing that this year's team is made of sterner stuff than the ones from the recent past.

Gintautas and Daniel Bogdziul combined well and Kieras hit a booming slap shot saved by Meierdres. Next in line were squandered opportunities by Edgar Rybakov and Bosas while at the other end Tony Demelinne picked out Roland Wurm, who missed a fine chance to tie the game from the slot.

Lithuania finally got their reward in the final frame. After an injured Meierdres had been replaced in the Dutch net by Martijn Oosterwijk, he soon had to pick out the puck from the net, as the Gintautas finally got his reward for his hard work, scoring Lituania's important second goal from a tight angle following fine work from Bogdzuil and Aimas Fiscevas at 5:55.

After the Netherlands failed to capitalise on Bosas 2+2 penalty call, the loudest cheer of the game came at 15:33 when Zubrus was first to pounce after Oosterwijk had left a rebound on Pijus Rulevicius shot from the left face-off circle to open up his goalscoring account of the tournament.

Lithuania's fourth unanswered goal came with one second left on the clock as Kieras finished off the score with a drive from the blueline to send the crowd home happy and Haake trying to put a lid on the expectations ahead of their next match against Poland.

"Tomorrow we play the favourites who should be playing in another division with teams like Denmark and Norway, so it will be other tactics for tomorrow," he said, while Chris Eimers, the head coach of the Netherlands aim to bounce back with a win against high-flying Croatia.

"It was a well-deserved with for Lithuania. In the second period we had pressure down their zone, but not many shots and then we lacked energy in the third period. We need to be better tomorrow."

HENRIK MANNINEN

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