The home team had to recover from a difficult start. Austria lost its opening game in overtime against Korea. It took some careful coaching to ensure the youngsters did not let that disappointment get to them, as forward Zoey Hobitsch explained.
“At the beginning it was a bit difficult because we let our heads drop a bit after losing to Korea,” she said. “The coaches built us back up, they gave us a lot of positive feedback so we got better and better into the tournament and finally made it to the gold medal.”
Head coach Mario Bellina added: “It was more difficult than expected and we were nervous at the beginning. Everybody expected that the game against Denmark on Sunday would be decisive, but that was completely wrong. You can see that every team could beat every other team.
“After we lost to Korea there was a lot of uncertainty and we knew it wouldn’t be easy. After that first game we said that all we really have to do is stick to what we’ve been practising on the ice and we’ll be fine.”
The competition was so tight that the Koreans went into the last day of action knowing that they could finish anywhere from first to fifth in the five-team group where China was missing due to the Covid-19 situation.
An opening-day overtime win against Austria kept Korea in with a shout of taking gold if it could beat Poland before the host nation played the concluding game against Denmark. However, defeat for Korea would enable Denmark to escape last place with a regulation time victory over Austria. In those circumstances, the Koreans would finish fifth and last.
In the event, Poland took a 2-1 verdict against Korea thanks to goals either side of the first intermission from Julia Zielinska and Maja Brzezinska. That lifted the Poles into second, ahead of Chinese Taipei, and also guaranteed top spot for Austria, which had earlier beaten Poland 4-0.
But there was still plenty riding on the last game of the tournament. A noisy home crowd was eager to see Austria celebrate gold with victory over Denmark, while the Danes were desperate for a win to avoid last place.
The Austrians had the better of the play but had a hard time solving Caroline Bjergstad in the Danish net. The 17-year-old, a prospect at the Rodovre club nurtured the talents of Michelle Karvinen, was impressive throughout the tournament and made several big saves to keep the game goalless until well into the second period.
Austria eventually got ahead during a spell of 4-on-4 play in the 29th minute. A breakaway sent Lisa Schrofl clear on Bjergstad’s net and the versatile 18-year-old, heading to the NCAA with Long Island this season, went top shelf to open the scoring. Late in the middle frame, Denmark tied it up on a power play goal when Frida Kielstrup put away the rebound from Sarah Stauning’s shot to keep the team’s survival hopes alive.
“After Poland’s win against Korea, of course, the pressure was off a bit and we almost took it too easy in the game against Denmark,” Hobitsch admitted. “We were two relaxed in the first two periods. Then the coaches told us to step it up a bit, we gave it our all again and got the win.”
In the third period, ‘stepping up a bit’ looked like dominating the game to the tune of a 13-2 shot count. Even so, it wasn’t until the final moments that Austria got the goal its supporters were craving. Leonie Kutzer grabbed the winner with 2:46 left in regulation time. At last, Korea could breathe easier with Denmark unable to find two goals in the final two minutes of play for the regulation win it needed.
“We wanted to enjoy the last game after promotion was decided early,” said head coach Bellina. “We didn’t manage to do that. Our players were already relaxed during the warm-up, and that’s exactly how they played.”
Despite his frustrations with the final game, Bellina was happy with the championship as a whole – and is looking forward to more in future.
“The individual skills of these young ladies are very high,” he said. “They are still young, but they are able to raise their game. They have learned and will continue to learn.
“Now they have good opportunities to develop with their clubs and they will bring that back to the national team in the future. This is a super generation, the cohorts from 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008 have very good depth. There is a lot coming through.”
Hobitsch was nominated as the best player of the tournament, a personal highlight from a memorable tournament. “There have been unbelievably beautiful moments at this World Championship,” she said. “Over the last few camps, we became not only teammates, but also friends. We have grown together as friends and as a team.”
The other individual prizes went to Korea’s Inhye Jang and Austrian defender Karolina Hengelmuller. Hobitsch finished as the tournament’s top scorer with 6 (4+2) points, teammate Emma Hofbauer had 6 (2+4) from three games.
As well as winning gold, Austria advances to next season’s Division IA, where it will face Germany, France, Hungary, Norway and host nation Italy in January.
Poland took silver and Chinese Taipei finished in third place for bronze. Although it’s not gold, it was still a moment to celebrate. Poland had never finished better than third since entering the U18 Women’s World Championship in 2015 at this level.
Chinese Taipei, which returned after having withdrawn from the original tournament dates in January due to Covid-19, played for the first time at Division IB level after earning promotion in 2020 and already ended up with medals around the players’ necks.
The tournament was the IIHF’s last women’s tournament of the 2021/2022 season. Today the very last tournament of the old season begins with another tournament moved from January with the 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship Division II Group B. All games can be watched live on the tournament page.