New Zealand wins Women’s U18 Div 2B
by Derek O'BRIEN|15 JAN 2024
photo: © International Ice Hockey Federation
A late goal on a wild final day of action sees the Kiwis promoted after just their third tournament.
In dramatic fashion, New Zealand has won the IIHF U18 Women’s World Championship Division II Group B in Sofia Bulgaria, defeating the host team 4-3 on the final day to secure advancement. The Kiwis needed a regulation win in their last game and got it when Jess Ryall scored the tournament-winning goal with just 1:34 to play. As a result, New Zealand will advance to Division II Group A next season.
“A roller coaster of emotion with many scenarios that could have played out in such a close tournament,” New Zealand head coach Matt Sandford described. “Our last game, simply, we needed to win in regulation to secure gold. If we went to overtime, we likely would have dropped to bronze.”
Heading into the final day of competition, New Zealand and Iceland led with nine points each and Belgium lurked just behind with eight. New Zealand held the tiebreaker against Iceland by virtue of winning their head-to-head meeting 2-0 on Tuesday, but Belgium held the tiebreaker against New Zealand. The Icelanders left nothing to chance in Sunday’s first game, beating the Republic of South Africa 24-0, which put the pressure on New Zealand to beat Bulgaria in regulation time. The score was tied 2-2 through two periods, despite a 32-16 advantage in shots for the Kiwis.
Eden Greaves gave New Zealand a 3-2 lead on a 5-on-3 advantage with 4:29 to go but Poyla Petrova quickly answered for Bulgaria, to put New Zealand back into a tough position. With just under two minutes to play, Sandford pulled goaltender Zadia Paulse for an extra attacker and it quickly paid off.
“It was an all-or-nothing moment that paid off with a shot from the point from Aoife Orr and tipped in by Jess Ryall to secure gold!” Sandford said excitedly about the winning goal.
New Zealand finished first despite having to play a compressed schedule of five games in six games, which became necessary when the equipment didn’t arrive in time for the team from South Africa – their first scheduled opponent. Nonetheless, they looked to be in firm control after three games, winning all three and outscoring their opponents 27-1 in the process. However, after a day off on Friday, a 5-2 loss to Belgium on Saturday complicated things, setting the stage for Sunday’s drama.
Overall, it was an impressive win for New Zealand, which was competing in just its third U18 Women’s World Championship. After debuting in 2020, the team returned last season following a two-year pandemic-related absence to finish fourth in the group. This year marks a significant improvement.
“It’s a total team achievement from players to staff on and off ice, and I’m hugely proud of this group,” said Sandford. “It’s been an absolute honour. The future of women’s ice hockey in New Zealand is in a really good place.”
Looking ahead to next year, he said, “It’s a big step up but we’re lucky enough having only four players ageing out. Distance and (playing in the opposite) season are always issues but with our normal Kiwi attitude, we’ll punch above our weight and will look forward to the challenge.”
The tournament finished on Sunday night with Belgium defeating Mexico 4-2. As a result, Belgium finished third with eleven points, followed by Mexico with six, Bulgaria with four and the newcomer from the Republic of South Africa with none.
It was the first-ever appearance at the U18 Women’s Worlds for the South Africans, and their task was made more difficult due to the aforementioned equipment issue. As a result, like New Zealand, they had to five games in six days. Despite being overmatched and heavily outscored, the highlight of the South Africans’ tournament came 27 seconds into their first game when Michayla Venter scored the team’s first-ever goal in the competition.
The top two scorers of the tournament were New Zealand forwards Nerhys Gordon and Polly Bennetts, who each finished with 12 points. Following them were Belgium’s Camille Sommerschuh with 10 points and Iceland’s Solrun Arnardottir with nine points. Gordon led the tournament with nine goals, followed by Mexico’s Regina Labistida, whose eight points – all goals – led all defenders in both categories.
Belgium was the tournament’s best defensive team with only five goals against in five games, and goaltender Anouk Belmans – who played in four of the team’s games – was the leader in save percentage (94.90) and goals-against average (1.23).