IIHF Men’s World Championship I-B: Preview
by Andrew PODNIEKS|27 APR 2024
photo: © International Ice Hockey Federation / Catherine Kortsmik
The 2024 IIHF Men’s World Championship program is in full swing these days and that includes Division I-B which starts today in Vilnius, Lithuania. One team is delighted to be here (Spain), one team not so much (Lithuania), and four teams are trying to improve over last year within the division (China, Estonia, Netherlands, Ukraine).
Lithuania isn’t so happy because they played in I-A last year. But after losing all five games they were demoted for 2024, and it is, of course, their ambition to move up again for 2025. And what better way to do it than before an adoring home crowd at Twinsbet Arena?
The last time they were in I-B was 2018, so they have to be the favourites this year. They scored only seven goals in the five games in 2024, three coming off the stick off 31-year-old Aivaras Bendzius. He’ll be playing in Vilnius and will be counted on to score even more at this lower level. Mantas Armalis was excellent in goal last year and he, too, is back. He plays with Leksands in the Swedish league and had a 3.29 GAA in I-A in 2023 despite an 0-3 record. The youngest player in the tournament is 17-year-old Simonas Valivonis, who plays with Liepaja, but it’s unclear how much ice time coach Ron Pasco will give him.
At the other end of the spectrum, Spain earned promotion to I-B by virtue of a 1st-place finish in II-A last year, a finish keyed by a 2-0 victory over Georgia in the battle for top spot. Goalie Raul Barbo earned the shutout and had a perfect 5-0 record, and the 20-year-old is back again this year at a more difficult level. The last time Spain played so high was back in 2011. Dorian Donath scored five goals last year, including the game winner against the Georgians, and he’ll be a key part of the team this year as well. He and captain Alejandro Carbonnell tied for the team lead in scoring with eight points, but it will be a very tough fight, indeed, if the Spanish want to remain in I-B a year longer.
What can you say about Ukraine? Their resilience just to participate in the IIHF program while war rages at home is unimaginable, yet there they were, finishing second last year to Japan and narrowly missing promotion. They played in the top Men’s World Championship pool for eight years, 1999-2007, and since then have been up and down between I-A and I-B, so this might be their year if they can find a way to beat Lithuania.
They had 35 goals in five games last year, and six players had at least ten points, notably captain Igor Merezkho (3+10=13) and Olexi Vorona (5+8=13). Danil Trakht led the team with six goals, but it was the defensive side of the game that was their undoing. They gave up 16 goals, which is too many at this level of play, so if they can produce the offense but clean up play in their own end, they might be headed back to I-A.
China finished third last year but the team they are bringing to Vilnius bears almost no resemblance to the 2024 edition. Only half a dozen players are returning, leaving coach Spiros Anastasiadis to re-make the team in every aspect. Goalie Zehao Sun, who played less than 80 minutes last year, is the only puckstopper returning. He’ll be joined by Jianing Guo, Ruinan Yan, and Juncheng Yan. But after that, this is a team in complete re-build mode.
Estonia has played in I-B for the last eight years, and with an IIHF World Ranking of 28 this is an honest representation of where they are in the hockey world. I-A would probably be too much to handle, but they are certainly better than a II-B team. Their new head coach is former Finnish player Petri Skriko, replacing another Finn, Jussi Tupamaki, after seven seasons. Captain Robert Rooba will be back. He co-led the team in goals last year with three, a number that indicates their biggest problem—putting the puck in the net. Goalie Conrad Molder gave the team its only win last year, but it’s scoring more than goaltending that is key to Estonia’s success.
The Netherlands avoided demotion last year despite giving up 29 goals in five games. Guus van Nes led the team in goals (four) and points (seven), and he’s back to lead the attack again. Alongside him is captain Danny Stempher, wearing the “C” for the third year. Pretty much all of the Dutch players skate in their domestic league, but one exception is defender Viktor Nordemann, who plays in Germany with Iserlohn and who will be counted on to cut that goal- allowed statistic.
All in all, there are many rivalries and battles within the round robin that will determine who is promoted and demoted for 2025. For now, it’s about strategy, preparation, and, finally, execution to determine what those final standings will look like in a week’s time.