Hungary 7-Spain 3It was a victorious opener for the host nation as the men’s Olympic qualification (Round 3, Group G) kicked off on Thursday in Budapest. Hungary dominated with three goals in both the first and second periods before taking its foot off the gas in the third.
There was plenty for fans at the Tuskecsarnok rink to cheer about, although work remains to be done. The three-game round-robin format offers little margin for error as these teams chase the dream of making it to the 2026 Winter Olympics in Italy.
"It wasn’t a great night of A-level hockey on our part." said Hungarian coach Don MacAdam. "We got scored on while trying to kill a too-many-men penalty. We didn’t get any scoring chances on the power play. No disrespect to our competition, but we should be much better then we played tonight. We have to in the next two games."
Akos Mihalys and Vilmos Gallo set the tone with two goals apiece to stake Hungary to a commanding 4-0 lead. Fellow forward Janos Hari chipped in three assists.
The opening goal at 1:44 was a thing of beauty. Assistant captain Istvan Terbocs powered in off the left side and then dished the puck through Spanish defenders to Mihalys for an easy tap-in. Mihalys, a 24-year-old who plays for Fehervar AV19, was equally cool on his 2-0 breakaway marker at 7:51. It was off to the races for the home side.
Hungary’s three Olympic appearances date back 60 years or more (1928, 1936, 1964). However, the national team has made waves in the 21st century with three IIHF World Championship stints (2009, 2016, 2023).
Ranked 19th in the IIHF World Ranking, the Hungarians controlled the puck and the pace. Spain, which sits 32nd, was at a marked disadvantage, never having competed at either an Olympics or top-level Worlds. Hungary outshot Spain 37-18.
"I think the second period was our worst," said Spanish forward Dorian Donath. "We were just throwing the pucks away without looking up. In the third period, I think we were playing with a little bit more confidence and trying to stick to our game plan a little bit more."
After conceding six goals on 24 shots, Spanish starting goalie Raul Barbo was yanked in favour of Marco Barbo to start the third period.
The Spaniards did gain some positive momentum in that final stana. At 2:20, Donath spoiled Hungarian netminder Adam Vay’s shutout bid with a deft tip, and a little over three minutes later, Jaime Capillas snapped the puck past Vay’s blocker with the man advantage.
Assistant captain Istvan Terbocs added Hungary’s seventh goal with a nice bit of stickhandling to cap off a give-and-go with under two minutes left. Yet Donath potted another one for Spain just eight seconds later.
Spanish head coach Luciiano Basile emphasized the positives: "The last time I coached against Hungary with Spain, we lost 13-1 in Budapest in 2011. So obviously this game shows that our program is going in the right direction."
On Friday, Spain takes on Japan, while the Hungarians will battle Lithuania.
Japan 6-Lithuania 4Japan battled back from a second-period three-goal deficit to avert a Lithuanian upset on Day One. Forward Kohei Sato paced the Japanese attack with a pair of goals.
Lithuania came out storming. Mark Kaleinikovas drew first blood just 14 seconds in with a high shot from the right faceoff circle that surprised Japanese starter Yuta Narisawa. The Baltic underdogs outshot Japan 18-7 in the first period and were up 3-0 early in the second.
“We started well,” said Lithuanian coach Ron Pasco. “In the first half of the game we were able to play like we wanted to. Our goalie [Elvinas Karla] made some big saves.”
The Japanese rally began with goals 17 seconds apart near the midpoint by Sota Isogai and Sato. By the end of the middle frame, it was 3-3.
At 3:34 of the third period, Teruto Nakajima potted the go-ahead goal on the power play. He tipped in a slap-pass from captain Shogo Nakajima, the 2023 Asia League points leader. Japan never looked back, ultimately outshooting their opponents 39-32.
“What turned out to be the difference is that once we started to pressure them with our forecheck, we wore them down a little bit,” said Japanese coach Perry Pearn. “They broke down in their own zone and we were able to take advantage.”
Japan is looking to qualify for the Winter Games for the first time since hosting the inaugural “NHL Olympics” in Nagano in 1998. Its highest finish was eighth place in 1960. Meanwhile, Lithuania has never competed at the Olympics. The Lithuanians finished 10th in their only top-level Worlds in 1938.
Looking forward to Lithuania's Friday matchup, Pasco said: “Against Hungary it will be a huge challenge for us, because they are a very strong team. They’ve got a lot of tremendous players. For us it’s about trying to recover now and preparing for the next game, which will be a big test for us.”