Serbia defeated the Netherlands 3-2 in a shootout in the final game for both teams at the 2023 IIHF World Championship Division I Group B. However, one point was enough to save the Netherlands from relegation. When regulation time ended tied, Serbia was relegated.
“Unfortunately, we don’t have enough points to stay in the group but we won a big game,” said an emotional Nemjana Jankovic, the Serbian coach. This was a big game for us, and I’m so proud of the boys for all of the battles they did this week.”It was anticipated before the tournament that it would come down to this game to determine which team was relegated, and that’s indeed what happened. Serbia earned a point on opening night by taking host Estonia to a shootout, and the Netherlands had three points from an upset win over China. It’s that advantage that meant the Dutch team only needed a point from this one.
“We had one really good game against China, and that’s the reason we stayed in,” said Dutch captain Danny Stempher. “I think we’re all happy we beat China. That was icing on the cake.”
Stempher was less impressed by his team’s play against Serbia, saying: “There were big parts of the game where we played pretty sloppy. We gave them a lot of chances, especially in the third period when we had to close down the game. It was a pretty bad third period but, we’re lucky that getting to overtime was enough.”
The teams traded early chances but then settled down and the first period was pretty even. The shots were 11-11 and each team scored once. The Netherlands struck first at 8:23 on Diego Hofland’s backhand pass out front to Gus van Nies, and the Quinnipiac University grad buried his fourth goal of the tournament. Serbia tied it less than two minutes later and it was the team’s sniper, Mirko Djumic, taking a feed from Pavle Podunavac and firing it on the near side.
In the second period, the rink tilted a bit in the Netherlands’ favour and they scored the go-ahead goal just shy of the game’s midpoint. On a harmless-looking rush, defender Jordy Verkiel shot from the wing beat Arsenije Rankovic along the ice between the legs.
“The guys played their hearts out but we were a little bit slower in the second period, which cost us and we had to climb back,” said Jankovic.
With the need to outscore their opponents by two in the third period, the Serbs came out more aggressively but the Dutch, also aware of this fact, tried to play a very low-risk period. For a while they succeeded but, with about 7:30 to play, Dutch goalie Ruud Leeuwesteijn played the puck behind his net but Serbian forward Lazar Lesteric beat everyone to the puck and centred out front to Nemanja Vuvurevic, who fired it home before Leewesteijn was able to get set.
After killing a penalty, Rankovic came out for a sixth attacker with less than two minutes left. Serbia went to the power play with 9.1 seconds left and drove hard to the net off the faceoff, but the puck was shot out of the zone, which finished Serbia.
“We learned that we can play at this level,” said Jankovic. “In terms of development, we have to find a way to play a full 60 minutes. We had three games where we played 40 minutes of unbelievable hockey but we were missing that last bit. That’s definitely something we’ve gotta focus on in the future.”
“It’s much better for Dutch ice hockey to stay here,” said Stampher. “If we want to get better, we have to stay here for five years or so and maybe even get a chance at promotion.”