Top-ranked ahead of arrival, Hong Kong, China´s women dropped two points en route to their top-place finish. With seven first-timers on the roster, the only non-European participant team arrived in Romania as the tournament dark horse.
Despite suffering a shootout loss in their penultimate game after squandering a 4-1 lead against Lithuania, the Hong Kongers regrouped and finally came good to finish top of the standings.
It marks a successful four-week medal spree on European ice for the Hong Kong, China hockey program in World Championship play. In early March this year, its men´s national team finished third to win its first medal in Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina. One month on and in wintry surroundings at the foot of the Southern Carpathians, the women´s team continued to write hockey history in Romania. A common denominator for both successful national teams is Russian head coach Nikita Smirnov.
"The last time I worked with the women´s team was at the 2020 World Championship Division III in Sofia, Bulgaria. Now three years later we have a different team with a lot of new players. With players coming from North America and Asia we met in Europe and just had a couple of practices before our first game," said Smirnov.
Having comfortably beaten Bulgaria 6-2 in their opener, the Hong Kongers´ key win came during the second day against Ukraine. Head coach Smirnov opted to give 15-year-old debutant Keira Mok a start as netminder. It turned out to be a masterstroke with on-song Mok selected as the top goalkeeper of the tournament by the directorate. With the Ukrainians dominating proceedings and winning the shots 31-10 during the first 40 minutes of play, Mok´s inspiring goaltending kept the Hong Kongers in the game.
As the third period wore on, Hong Kong, China worked themselves into the game. Estelle Ip broke the deadlock for the Hong Kongers at 46:23 on an assist by Renee Ng. With Ukraine relentlessly charging ahead in their hunt for an equalizing goal, debutant Iris Li poached to double Hong Kong, China´s lead just over four minutes later. Polina Telehina then pulled one back for Ukraine with 6:37 left to play. In a last desperate attempt, Ukraine yanked goalie Viktoria Tkachenko with 50 seconds to go. The Hongkongers managed to weather the storm in a morale-boosting win that instilled belief within their camp.
"Ukraine is a strong team but I was impressed with our team who worked very hard and played well. With our new generation, it was hard to know before the tournament what to expect. But our ambition has been to win each game," said Smirnov.
After dispatching Romania 3-1, the Hong Kongers headed into their penultimate game against Lithuania. Tracy Wong had put Hong Kong, China 4-1 ahead at 48:38. Then followed a remarkable fightback by Lithuania. With the Lithuanians tying the game with 4:25 left of the third period, Renee Ng became the only Hong Konger netting in the ensuing penalty shootout loss.
But all was not lost for Hong Kong, China. Heading into the final round of games twists were still left in this tale. Following a nervy 3-0 final day win against Estonia, the players of Hong Kong, China then moved up to the stands of Brasov´s Olympic Ice Rink. In the ensuing nail-biting encounter, they looked on as Ukraine stepped up to edge Lithuania 2-1 and play their part in Hong Kong, China´s historical gold.
Top-placed Hong Kong, China moves up to 2024 IIHF Women´s World Championship Division II Group B.
Valiant Ukrainian team celebrates silver
Heading into their final game against Lithuania, the Ukrainians needed at least two points to leapfrog their opponents to get their hands on the silver medals.
In a tense encounter, Ukraine´s Khrystyna Zahrekova broke the deadlock at 33:07. 16-year-old Gabija Petrauskaite who earlier in the game had hit the post then levelled for Lithuania. But instead of a late rally for the Baltic state chasing gold, Viktoria Tsenova scored Ukraine´s winner with 6:15 left of the third period.
Backed from the stands by a large and vocal contingent of fans inside Brasov´s Olympic Ice Rink throughout the week, Ukraine iced the youngest team by some distance. Disciplined at the back, they conceded the least amount of goals in the tournament. At the opposite end, they also appeared goal-shy struggling throughout the week to convert their superiority in shots into goals.
"We haven´t played for around four years, so just for us to be playing here is very important," said Ukraine head coach Yevgeniy Alipov. "Now we have a change of generation with older players going out, and younger ones coming in. But we don´t have enough experience right now to make pressure in games which were visible in most of our games and especially in the one versus Hong Kong, China."
Ukraine´s leading scorer in Brasov was Telehina notching 5+4 in five outings. Still only 19, she has already played club hockey in Ukraine, Turkey, Italy and Switzerland. Telehina was one of five on the Ukrainian roster representing HC Ambri-Piotta in Switzerland. Another player standing out for the Ukrainians was Tetiana Kyrychenko, voted the tournament´s best defender by the directorate.
Bronze for a dejected Lithuania
Silver medalists last year, the southernmost and largest of the three Baltic states arrived in Brasov aiming to go one better this year. In their penultimate thriller against Hong Kong, China, rallying back from 1-4 down to win the ensuing penalty shootout had put Lithuania in the driver´s seat for gold.
With destiny in their own hands, Lithuania stepped out on the ice needing two points from their final game against Ukraine. Lithuania´s vastly experienced German coach Bernd Haake had in Romania relied heavily on his top two lines. Following an intensive schedule in Brasov with competitive games contested in quick succession, Haake knew they were up for a tough task against Ukraine.
"Our goal coming here was to get the gold medal, but I know, Ukraine will be very strong. We played them in Estonia earlier this year. They then outshot us, but we won the game 7-4. Back then they only had 15 girls, now they are 20. Ukraine has also been on a training camp here in Romania for a week and to me, they are the favourites," he said.
Despite falling tantalisingly short against the Ukrainians 2-1 in Brasov´s Olympic Ice Rink and slipping down to third, Haake sees a bright future ahead for Lithuanian women´s hockey. Voted as the tournament´s best forward, 19-year-old Klara Miuller was also top of the scoring charts with 18 points (13 +5) in five games. Others who stood out for the Lithuanians were 15-year-old debutant Viltaute Jasinevicuite tallying 4+5 and Petrauskaite with 3+6. All three have played on boys' teams from a very early age.
"The young generation is coming up and our best players are the girls who have started to play with guys. What is very good in Lithuania is that coaches of all teams have accepted that girls can start playing with boys' teams from a very young age. This is very good progress," said Haake.
Winless after three games, fourth-placed hosts Romania was rewarded for their hard graft by blanking Estonia 4-0 in their penultimate fixture. The Romanians then closed the tournament to hit double digits in a 10-2 win against neighbours Bulgaria. In a heated encounter with a whopping 554 penalty minutes, Ana Voicu enjoyed a five-goal night playing in her hometown.
Bulgaria finished fifth and was led in the offense by Simona Asparuhova who was overall second in scoring notching 11 points (5+6) points. Newly promoted Estonia battled valiantly throughout the tournament but finished without a point at the bottom of the standings.