Tuesday, April 21, 2015

2015 IIHF World Championships Update

As we previewed last week, the annual IIHF World Championship season has begun. Already completed at the time of our report was the Division III World Championships, which were held in Turkey, where Bosnia and Herzegovina (currently unranked by the IIHF) made their IIHF World Championship debut, competing against Georgia (ranked 47th), Hong Kong (48), Luxembourg (42), North Korea (43), Turkey (41) and the United Arab Emirates (45).

North Korea and Turkey were tied atop the standings with perfect 5-0 records, setting up a winner take all final. Turkey tied the game with 2:15 remaining in regulation, sending the game into overtime.

At 4:22, Yusuf Halil was called for tripping, setting up a power play for the North Koreans. It would only take 27 seconds for assistant captain Chun Rim Hong to score his second goal of the game to give the North Koreans the win, the gold medal and a promotion to the IIHF Division II Group B tournament for 2016 despite Turkey outshooting them 41-28.

North Korea finished with 5 wins and an overtime win for 17 points (the IIHF awards 3 points for a regulation win), Turkey was next with 5 wins and an overtime loss for 16, Luxembourg went 4-2 for 12 points, Hong Kong 3-3 for 9, Georgia had 1 win, 1 OT win and 4 losses for 5 points, the United Arab Emirates were 1 win, 1 OT loss and 4 losses for 4 points while Bosnia and Herzegovina was 0-6 and are still looking for their first World Championship victory.

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Division II Group B was held in Cape Town, South Africa and saw a wonderful collection of far-flung nations. from Bulgaria (39), China (38), Israel (32), Mexico (33), New Zealand (37) and the host South Africa (40).

The tournament went the way of the Chinese, as they cruised to a undefeated record of 4 regulation wins and an overtime win against Israel for a total of 14 points. New Zealand and Mexico were next at 9 points with 3-2 records. Bulgaria at 2-3 for 6 points, Israel (1 win, 1 overtime loss and 3 regulation losses) at 4 points were all trailed by the hosts South Africa, who went 1-4, with their only win coming against New Zealand, were relegated to Division III for 2016, while China moves up to Division II Group A next year.

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Division II Group A took place over 7,000 miles to the north in Reykjavik, Iceland with Australia (34), Belgium (36), Spain (30), host Iceland (35), Romania (27) and Serbia (31) competing.

This tournament could not have been scripted any better in favor of Romania, who, like the Chinese won 4 and needed an overtime to beat the hosts Iceland in the tournament's final game after they had already clinched the gold medal and a promotion to Division I Group B for 2016.

No other team won more than two games in regulation, with Belgium's 8 points coming closest to Romania's 14. Serbia, Spain and Iceland all had 7 points and Australia's 9,500 mile trip must taken the wind out of their sails after managing a lone shootout win for 2 points, which sees them relegated to Division II Group B for 2016.

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Also taking place last week in Eindhoven in the Netherlands was Division II Group B. The participating clubs were Croatia (28), Estonia (29), Great Britain (22), Lithuania (26), host Netherlands (25) and the lone Asian entry, South Korea (23).

We advised that the South Koreans in particular were worth tracking, as they controversially have been guaranteed a place in the 2018 Winter Olympic hockey tournament, which they will be hosting. They are under pressure to increase the competitiveness of their program in time for The Games, where they will be competing in a 12 team tournament against the heavy hitters of international hockey despite their current world ranking of just 23rd.

Great Britain opened with a 3-2 overtime win over Croatia, while the South Koreans thumped Estonia 7-3. Lithuania made a first period goal stand up as they won 1-0 over the Netherlands. The British then won 2-1 vs Estonia and the South Koreans again won big, 7-1 over the Netherlands while Lithuania failed to keep pace, losing 4-1 to Croatia.

Day 3 saw a vital matchup, which went the way of Great Britain, 3-2 over South Korea in regulation for the full 3 points after the Koreans once led 2-0. Before you dismiss these lower division players skill level, have a look at this stunning, cheeky and highly skilled penalty shot since from defenseman Ben O'Connor with the score tied at 2-2!

Lithuania beat Estonia 6-1 and Croatia lost their second 5-2 to the Netherlands to fall out of the promotion picture.

Saturday's games saw the South Koreans rebound with a 5-0 blanking of Lithuania while Great Britain kept the top spot with a narrow 3-2 win over the Netherlands. With one game left to play, the British stood at 11 points and held the tiebreaker over the South Koreans (at 9 points) due to their head-to-head win, meaning the Brits only needed to get to overtime against Lithuania to secure a point in the standings and promotion.

In the first game of the day, the South Koreans took care of business with a 9-4 win over Croatia thanks to a 5 goal second period. All they could do now was watch the game between Great Britain and Lithuania and hope for a regulation win by the Lithuanians. The British led 1-0 after one, but a pair of second period goals by Lithuania gave the South Koreans hope. Their hopes took a blow however, when Great Britain scored the equalizer just 3:25 into the third period.

The British killed off a penalty at 10:49, but just 3 seconds later, they were called for a delay of game penalty, and this time it took Lithuania a mere nine seconds to convert for a 3-2 lead. Donatas Kumeliauskas of Lithuania was then called for a five minute major for head butting at 56:02, putting Great Britain on the power play for the rest of regulation and needing a precious goal to get to overtime for the lone point they needed to clinch the championship.

With only 30 seconds remaining the Brits pulled their goalie for a 6-on-4 advantage, but just seven seconds later where whistled for holding. While they did get their goalie out with 16 seconds remaining, they could not convert and their 3-2 regulation loss gave the happy South Koreans the gold medal and the promotion to Division I Group A for 2016, where they will face the next level of competition as they seek to improve to the next level on their path to the 2018 Olympics.

As happened to the South Africans, the host Netherlands ended up finishing last thanks to their final day 3-1 loss to Estonia and will compete in Division II Group A in 2016.

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Meanwhile, action in Division I Group A in Krakow, Poland got underway on Sunday. The field of teams ranked in the IIHF Top 25 include Hungary (19), Italy (18), Japan (21), Kazakhstan (17), host Poland (24) and Ukraine (20). 

Kazakhstan currently sits atop the standings with 6 points thanks to their opening day 5-2 win over Ukraine followed by a 5-0 blanking of Hungary. The Italians are next with a pair of narrow 2-1 wins over Poland and Ukraine, with the second requiring overtime, leaving Italy one point back of the Kazakhs with 5 points. Those two have separated themselves from the pack, as Poland and Hungary are both 1-1 for 3 points, while Ukraine has but a single point from their OT loss to Italy and Japan is last with two losses to Hungary and Poland and look to be headed for relegation unless they can right their ship quickly, as both Kazakhstan and Italy still loom ahead on their schedule.

Teams have today off, but then play back-to-back on Wednesday and Thursday before the tournament wraps up on Saturday with the key game that day looking to be the matchup of the two leaders Kazakhstan and Italy. Still in with a shot are Hungary and Poland, but with one loss each, they must hope the leaders falter while they cannot afford another loss, particularly in regulation.

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Six days after the conclusion of the Division I Group A tournament, the 2015 IIHF World Championship will get underway on Friday, May 1 in Prague and Ostrava in the Czech Republic. Play will conclude when the new world champion is crowned on Sunday, May 17th from the survivor of a 16 team field which consists of Austria (16), Denmark (15), Slovenia (14), Germany (13), France (12), Belarus (11), Norway (10), Latvia (9), Slovakia (8), Switzerland (7), the United States (6), the Czech Republic (5), Canada (4), Russia (3), Finland (2) and Sweden (1).

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