Historic gold for Bulgaria U18
by Ivan Tchechankov|01 APR 2019
The Bulgarian juniors celebrate their historic win at the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship Division III Group A on home ice in Sofia.
photo: Kostadin Andonov
For the first time in the history of the IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championships Bulgaria has won a gold medal. The host of the Division III Group A went undefeated last week in the round robin tournament in the Winter Sports Palace of Sofia.

Bulgaria started with a hard fought 7-5 win against Iceland, continued with edging Mexico 2-1, a 3-2 overtime victory against Israel, 4-2 against Turkey and finished with convincing 5-1 win over New Zealand.

The host team thus earned promotion to the 2020 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship Division II Group B. So far the best Bulgarian showing in the U18 category had been third place in the Division III Group A (2011, 2015, 2016, 2018). Only three other times Bulgaria has won an IIHF tournament – 1985 in the U20 and 1998 and 2014 in the men’s category.

“The boys played together, they were a team, listening to the coaches’ instructions and were disciplined throughout the tournament. We knew that the teams are very equal and we were looking game by game to give our best every single time,” said head coach Svetlin Stoev after the triumph. In a unique way this team actually didn’t have a star player or a leader and even had a coaching trio, which worked excellently together and was answering the questions together. “This was the tournament of the collective spirit. There was an absolute bond between the boys, between us, and between the coaches and the boys. That is the reason we won five from five”, explained the assistant coach Todor Pondev.

Bulgaria had three wins in one tournament of the U18 World Championships three times (2004, 2011, 2016), but this week the talented new generation exceeded all expectation, but one: “Even before the start of the tournament I had the feeling that we will have good results. I’ve been in Bulgaria for 14 years and I have never seen such a team. They believed in themselves and in their chances to win in this group. We offered them a system to play, they accepted it and started to feel comfortable in it,” said Stanislav Muhachev, a Russian-born coach who played many years for the Bulgarian men’s national team.

Even within the games there were multiple changes in the lines, the using of forwards as defensemen and vice versa. That way the team was hard to play against by just matching lines and was able to sustain a high-level intensity and speed shift after shift.

“Everyone gave his best. We were assessing the boys, those who were having a great game were getting more minutes and tasks. The others were helping them. This is a real team, none was acting as a star and based on that everything was going our way. You need some luck too. We were at the right place at the right moment,” explained Stoev.

Year after year the reason for the good results were the Bulgarian players who were coming from abroad.  This time around there were players from the domestic league such as Trevor-Shon Isa, Martin Nakov and Simeon Tsitselkov who showed at least equal level to the “diaspora” players.

Goaltender Ivan Stoynov, who plays for HK Maribor in Slovenia, didn't start well, but after that was outstanding and finished the tournament with the best goals against average of 2.08.

The hero of the first game against Iceland was the youngest player on the roster – Nino Tomov, who turns 15 on 20th April. The defenceman, who plays for Sparta Prague’s U16 team in the Czech Republic, had two goals and two assists and made a great impression with his skating and reading of the game. Bulgaria was leading 6-2 after 34 minutes but Iceland cut the deficit to one goal before Kaloyan Vachkov tallied the insurance goal for 7-5 with three-and-a-half minutes left on the clock.

In the next game Martin Nakov opened the scoring on a power play after an excellent pass from Nino Tomov. Mexico tied it five minutes later, but Ivelin Ivanov made it 2-1 midway the second period and that turned out to be the last goal in the game.
The truth is that we were able to extract the best from every one of these players. One game one player was shining, the next one another. And the top-four defencemen were playing unbelievable.
Todor Pondev
One of the areas that Bulgaria was excelling beyond expectations was the power play with 10 power-play goals from 24 opportunities or 41.67% efficiency in the tournament.

After a day of rest Bulgaria played Israel, another team with two wins in its first two games. Two quick goals in 37 seconds gave a 2-0 advantage to Israel in the 30th minute. In the closing seconds of the second period, during a 4-on-4 play, defenceman Shon Isa scored a beautiful goal on a backhand to cut the deficit. Six minutes into the third Nakov made a great pass to Isa, who scored again to tie the game.

A penalty for too many men on ice in the end of regulation time was costly for Israel. Bulgaria won in overtime after a power-play marker 4-on-3 by Nino Tomov with assists to Konstantin Dikov and Isa.

There was no time for celebration as Turkey was waiting for the host on the next day’s schedule. And again Nakov scored the first goal, but Turkey came back strong and had the lead 2-1 in the third period. Tomov got the equalizer and the game was heading into overtime when Tsitselkov scored on an individual effort coming from behind the net with 76 seconds left. An empty-netter by Moussa Abdi was the final touch in the 4-2 win.

Despite the perfect record the hosts were not sure of the first place before the last day of play. That has changed when in the first game on Sunday Turkey won against Israel 3-2. Bulgaria played their last game against New Zealand knowing that they just made a historic achievement, but all the emotions were put aside and the team was brilliant once again in a 5:1 victory with five different players scoring.

“The one thing that we are most proud of is that this team has character. All games before the last one were full of drama and the rotation was shorter, but today we had the chance to give some time to more players and they were quite good. They wanted to show that they deserve to be on that team and even in the last minute with the score 5-1 they were jumping for the puck, blocking shots, sacrificing themselves for the team. In the upper level the competition will be much harder and we need this kind of dedication from all the players to be able to keep our place in Division II Group B”, said Muhachev.

The battle for the other medals was quite dramatic with three teams ending up tied at nine points. Iceland and Israel took the medals while Turkey ended up fourth.

It was a tight and competitive tournament with 40 per cent of the games being one goal games of which many went to overtime.

Mexico and New Zealand both gained two points each, but in the direct encounter the Mexicans won 5-4 in a shootout and saved their spot in the group. The Kiwis were leading 2-1, 3-2 and 4-3. But 41 seconds before the end of regulation time Rodrigo Sanchez tied the score for a third time. In the shootout Santiago Esteban and Jorge Ortiz scored, Marcello Antunano made four saves and Mexico got the extra point while New Zealand is relegated.
2019 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship Division III Group A