Down but never out, Marko Brkusanin became Serbia’s hero when he coolly slotted home the game-winning penalty shot against Spain and lifted the hosts into the 2020 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championships Division I Group B.
A desperate Serbian team had only been in fourth place, when they were offered a lifeline in their final game against Spain. Blueliner Stefan Boskovic drew them level with 28 seconds left of the third period before Serbia´s netminder Arsenije Rankovic then saved three out of four Spanish penalty shots as 1,276 cheering home fans lifted the roof inside Belgrade´s Ice Rink Pionir.
Serbia’s 3-2 win over Spain marks the end of a historical season and possibly the start of a new exciting chapter for Serbian hockey.
En route to their gold, Serbia first saw off Croatia (3-1) before losing to Australia (2-3). They bounced back with straight wins against China (6-5) and Belgium (6-3) before finally toppling Spain following a nerve-racking final round of games.
Serbia´s final day celebrations was made possible thanks to neighbours Croatia, who earlier that day edged Australia, the leader of the standings after four days, 2-1. Both teams then watched on as Serbia collected their gold medals while dwelling on what could have been.
Croatia, who came within an earshot of gold, had to settle for silver, while Australia who entered the final day in pole position, finished up with the bronze medals. At the other end of the table, Belgium got relegated to Division IIB after losing the deciding game for fifth place to China.
Aleksa Lukovic´s goal after 4:10 had put Serbia ahead against Spain. Gaston Gonzalez hit back with an equaliser at 26:03. An Oriol Rubio power-play goal at 46:34 got Spain ahead and temporarily silenced the home crowd before Serbia´s last gasp leveller got their promotion campaign back on track and take the game into overtime, which finished goalless.
The influential Rubio scored Spain´s sole penalty marker in the shootout, while Serbia’s 20-year-old Mirko Djumic, voted the best forward of the tournament, also coolly slotted home his penalty in the shootout.
“After the shootouts and all the excitement I was shaking, but our players were used to this as they were three goals behind against China earlier in the tournament,” said Milovanovic.
During game day three against China, Serbia appeared to have dug themselves into a hole. With just over 11 minutes left of the game, China was cruising with a 5-2 lead. A frantic fightback saw Serbia score three unanswered goals to draw level with 1:36 to go. Then newly appointed head coach Alexandre Dandenault went for bust in what in hindsight turned out to be a masterstroke.
With 14 seconds left of the third frame and with netminder Rankovic pulled from the net, 19-year-old debutant Viktor Kastel sealed all three points for Serbia as team morale got a monumental boost.
“At that time hockey was at the highest level in Serbia. That team was more experienced. This year we have many young players with a lot of speed who helped us to win many of our games,” said Sretovic, who after winning his second gold at senior level has come full circle in a long and distinguished national team career.
“This was my absolute last season for the national team. I wanted to finish where everything once started,” said Belgrade-born Sretovic as he expects next season to be a stern test for his compatriots playing at a much higher level.
“It will be very tough, much harder than this. We need more preparation and a training camp as the guys should be ready to work hard with a lot of defending to be expected. I hope the head coach (Dandenault) and the staff will continue for next year,” said Sretovic.
The Croats did not disappoint. Shaone Morrisonn and Dominik Kanaet were on target for Croatia as they edged Australia 2-1. Croatia who came down from the 2018 IIHF World Championship Division I Group B last year saw Croatia head coach Enio Sacilotto made a dozen of changes this year’s roster, which still came within a whisker from sealing a straight return to the higher division.
“After relegation last year we came here hoping for gold. We only lost against Serbia and they won the World Championships. This year we brought in ten young kids into our team, so maybe next year will be better,” said Croatia´s captain Marko Tadic.
Australia, who as recently as 2016 were languishing in Division IIB, has since won two consecutive silver medals in Division IIA. Despite not playing a game for five months, they bounced back and came into their stride after an opening overtime defeat against Belgium before falling at the final hurdle against fellow gold-chasing Croatia.
“It’s was obviously not the result we wanted. We battled hard, but couldn´t capitalize on our chances. Their goalie and penalty kill were really good and unfortunately, that’s just the way it goes. We will pick up another medal which is great but not the colour that we wanted,” said captain Thomas Powell, who together with netminder Anthony Kimlin is one of the two players from the 2012 team that also last represented Australia in Division IB.
Having been on the receiving end of a fair share of bad breaks and hard luck, China finally came good when it mattered the most. In their relegation decider, they got their first points on board as they blanked Belgium 4-0 to stay in the group. It was also to be China´s sole game of the tournament where they spent fewer minutes than their opponent in the penalty box.
Belgium, who already flirted with relegation last year, had drafted in Mike Kolodziejczyk as head coach. His son Bryan was the tournament´s top scorer with 9 points (2+7) while Sam Verelst finished third (4+3) in scoring but it was all to be in vain. Finishing bottom, they now need to get back to winning ways in at the 2020 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championships Division II Group B.
“We are currently rebuilding. We have a very young team with very few returnees from last year. It’s tough with these young kids, but they are coming along. Even if we got relegated, I think there are some positives to come out of it which we can build on for the next years to come,” said Belgium´s head coach Kolodziejczyk.