Delight on Australia Day
by Andy Potts|28 JAN 2023
The Australian players celebrate after being awarded the gold medals.
photo: Karl Denham
It was an Australia Day that nobody will forget in a hurry. On the opposite side of the world, the Australian U18 women’s national team faced a crunch clash with Latvia in the 2023 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 Women’s World Championship Division II Group A. The Green & Gold knew that any kind of win would guarantee the tournament win with a game to spare. Both teams were unbeaten ahead of Thursday’s clash in Dumfries, Scotland, and they served up a game that lived up to its gold medal billing.

Initially, it all followed the Australian script. The second power play of the game saw captain Molly Lukowiak’s shot padded away for Courtney Mahoney to squeeze in a shot from a tight angle. Latvia had a big chance to tie it up late in the frame when the tournament’s leading scorer, Linda Rulle, got through on Madison Smith’s net. However, her usual deadly finishing deserted her, and the shot flashed over the top.

Early in the second, two quick goals seemed to have Australia in complete control. Mahoney potted her second of the game and Elana Holub added a third in the 25th minute. At 0-3, Latvia seemed dead and buried. However, there was no panic. A time-out calmed any nerves and got the team back to its strengths. By the second intermission it was 2-3 and game on. Emilija Jakovleva’s mighty point strike converted the Latvians’ first power play of the game, then the impressive Hanna Strause broke clear to grab a short-handed tally.

The third period brought some heavy pressure on the Australian net, with four penalties to kill in the closing stages before the hooter sparked jubilant celebrations of a memorable triumph.

“It was stressful in that third period,” admitted captain Lukowiak. “But we have an amazing team and we kept it together and kept playing. We kept our heads up and we managed to get it done.”

For Latvia, the disappointment of missing gold could not dim the team’s pride in securing silver in only its second tournament in women’s U18 play.

“This is a great achievement for us,” said head coach Miks Golubovics. “After we played our first tournament in Istanbul we kind of saw what the other teams looked like. We came back with a very good leadership core among the slightly older girls, plus some strong younger girls.

“We wanted to come and play for gold, and that game against Australia was a gold medal game. It was a close game and we had some chances to win it. That’s sport, sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but I’m very, very proud of this second place.”

Natasha Dube, Australia’s leading goal scorer, was also involved in Istanbul. “We knew how amazing it felt to win bronze and we wanted to come back harder and win another medal,” she said. “It’s such an amazing experience to be part of this now.”

And Australia’s head coach Tamra Jones paid tribute to her winning team after a terrific tournament. “It’s really a privilege to work with these girls,” she said. “They showed a lot of character and a lot of heart. They have a brilliant attitude, and they never give up. You can’t ask for anything more.”

Teamwork comes out on top

One of the most impressive things about Australia’s success was the depth of the team. Unusually, perhaps uniquely, the gold-medal team did not have a single nominee among the directorate’s individual awards. That was partly a testament to the quality of the competition with just two points separating the top four teams. However, it also highlighted that Australia was not a team that relied heavily on a key player or a dominant line. Throughout the competition, the Aussies played structured, disciplined hockey on all lines. A defeat against tournament host Great Britain in a dead rubber on the final day – thoughts perhaps already drifting towards the medal ceremony, which took place amid a skirl of bagpipes – was the only blemish on a great week.

That British victory set up a three-way tie with Latvia and the Netherlands all on 10 points. The tie-break put the Latvians in second with the Dutch winning bronze and GB finishing just out of the medals.

Stellar goaltending inspires Turkish survival

At the other end of the table, Türkiye and Mexico battled it out to escape relegation. This, too, was a close call. Türkiye got the crucial head-to-head verdict in a shoot-out after a 2-2 tie against Mexico. Twice the Turks led in regulation but a vital goal from Ximena Gonzalez 90 seconds from time kept the Mexicans alive in the game. Türkiye’s goalkeeper, Azra Sert, was the star player, with 37 saves in the game including eight in OT. She also stopped all but one of Mexico’s shootout attempts.

Sert played every minute of the tournament for Türkiye, facing 202 shots along the way as her team often endured some tough examinations. The other goalies who played all five games were Latvia’s Jelizaveta Stadnika, who faced 119 shots and Australia’s Smith, whose defence allowed just 61 efforts to reach her. Sert, who made her senior international debut last season, stopped 192 of them for an impressive save ratio of 95.05%.

That courageous performance earned Sert the directorate prize for top goalie. Latvia’s Rulle, prolific here as in Istanbul, won the best forward award after scoring 10 (8+2) points. That included a dazzling display against Mexico where she had five goals and an assist in a 6-1 win. Dutch defender Roos Karst took the prize in that category.

Mexico, meanwhile, drops to Division IIB next season. The Latin Americans were competitive in several games but could not quite get that all-important ‘W’.
2023 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 Women's World Championship Division II Group A