Olympic Qualification Group H: Day One Recap
by Andy Potts|08 FEB 2024
Romania’s Huba Bors (#6) scores on Serbian goalie Arsenije Rankovic as Yevgeni Skachkov looks on.
photo: © Ian Offers
Day one of Men's Olympic Qualification Group H went according to the form book. Romania shrugged off a slow start to ease past Serbia, before tournament host Great Britain defeated 2022 Olympian China in the evening game.

Romania 4 Serbia 0 (0-0, 3-0, 1-0)

Three points from Yevgeni Skachkov and a shut-out for Zoltan Toke gave Romania a winning start in Cardiff. Although the final 4-0 scoreline was comfortable for a new-look Romanian team, it took some time for Dave MacQueen’s players to settle to their task.

Serbia got through the first qualification round without allowing a goal. Today netminder Arsenije Rankovic extended his shut-out streak by another 20 minutes following an obdurate display from his defence.

In contrast, Romania failed to make much of the possession it generated, despite enjoying three power plays. The best opening fell to Otto Sandor Szekely in the 16th minute with a close-range shot that hit Rankovic’s helmet. Sandor Szekely, 23, is one of nine players on this team who did not feature under Julius Penzes at Division IA in Nottingham last season.

“We only got here yesterday,” Skachkov said. “This was our first time on this ice, and we weren’t at our best in the first period. All the guys are coming from different teams, so it took time to get used to each other’s game.

“But in the second period we more or less worked it out. We started skating better, and we went on to win the game.”

Skachkov ended Serbia’s resistance at the start of that second period. The third of those Romanian power plays carried over the intermission and the alternate captain’s wrist shot opened the scoring. The outsider had a decent chance to level the game on 25 minutes, but Nemanja Vucurevic could not make the most of an odd-man rush as Romania’s back line struggled to get back into position.

By the end of the middle frame, the game was safe. In the 33rd minute Szilard Rokaly took a tour through the Serbian zone, going past four opponents before presenting Huba Bors with the simplest of tap-ins at the back door. Then, in the final minute of play, Tamas Farkas thumped home a point shot as Skachkov screened Rankovic.

That made the game safe, but there was still time for Skachkov to mark his return to international play for the first time since 2022 with a deadly one-timer early in the third. 

“Everyone has the right attitude, everyone is only here to win,” said Skachkov. “I think it’s a new level for Romanian hockey and we’ll do whatever we can to help the team.”
photo: © Ian Offers

Great Britain 10 China 1 (2-0, 5-0, 3-1)

Great Britain powered to victory over an inexperienced Chinese team in the Thursday evening game in Cardiff. China’s roster was without most of the players who featured at the Beijing Olympics two years ago – just Zhang Zesen, Zhang Pengfei, Zimeng Cheng and Yan Ruinan got on the ice at that tournament and returned here. Instead, the roster was made up of home-grown prospects who play in China’s national championship.

The host nation had changes too, including one sadly enforced by circumstances. The game was preceded with a video tribute to Mike Hammond, a popular and prolific forward who died in a road accident last summer. That seemed to inspire the Brits to a fast start, and from the first seconds Chinese goalie Sun Zehao was scrambling around his crease to frustrate a flurry of shots.

The pressure delivered an opening goal on 3:32 when Liam Kirk showed his quality with a devastating wrister from between the hashmarks. Britain continued to dominate, but had to wait until the 17th minute to extend its lead. Mark Richardson, who plays his club hockey in Cardiff with the Devils, stepped into the right-hand circle to lash home a one-timer off Ben Lake’s feed.

Goalie Sun was the star of the first period, though, making 15 saves. In the second period, he faced even greater pressure and finally found himself eclipsed by Britain’s forwards. Kirk got his second and GB’s third, debutant Cam Critchlow, scored twice. There were further tallies from Johnny Curran and Cade Nielsen as the host nation put the game beyond reach.

Critchlow, who enjoyed a successful start to his international career after impressing with Manchester Storm in the EIHL, warned Britain's Group H rivals that there could be more to come.

"We just wanted to focus on our execution," he said. "We had to make sure we had our work ethic going and we were sharp, pushing the pace of the game. We did execute well at time but at times we had room for improvement so we want to keep getting better with every game."

The third period was a question of ‘how many?’ When Robert Dowd marked his first game as GB captain with his team’s eighth, the answer seemed set to be ‘lots!’ But the Dragons managed to grab a consolation goal seconds later on a fine unassisted effort from Tianyou Zuo. He pulled off a big play in front of British goalie Ben Bowns and followed it up with a big celebration.

It was a reminder that even an underdog can bite. "You never know sometimes," admitted Critchlow. "We didn't even have any video of this Chinese team, so it was a bit roll the dice and see what happens. But we know the level we wanted to play at, we wanted to make sure they had to elevate to match our intensity."

There was still time for Britain to reach double figures. In the closing stages Ben Davies and Nathaneal Halbert made the final score 10-1.