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The red flag with the yellow stars flew over the Dunedin Ice Stadium on Sunday, as China closed out a dominant performance at the 2015 IIHF U20 World Championship Division III with a 4-1 win over the host team New Zealand. 
The Chinese players hit the ice in celebration when the final whistle blew, throwing off their helmets and flinging their arms into the air with joy. They had achieved their goal and lifted the morale of Chinese junior ice hockey, which will be returning back to the second division next year.
It was an important step up the ladder as China aspires to be one of the top hockey nations in the world. China won the round-robin in emphatic fashion, beating Mexico 6-1, Turkey 6-1, and South Africa 13-0 prior to their final against New Zealand. In all the Dragons scored 29 goals in four games and only conceded three.

China retained its unbeaten record when it beat New Zealand 4-1 in the final game. It was a must-win game for both teams – New Zealand had seven points and despite losing in overtime to Mexico 3-2 on Thursday, a win versus China in regulation would have given them the gold medal.

The Kiwis came out firing and took every opportunity to pepper the Chinese goal. The skill of Chinese goal tender Han Wang played a key role in maintaining China’s unbeaten record. In all Wang conceded one goal and saved 49 during the tournament, the one goal coming in that final game where he otherwise had 36 saves and made a significant contribution to China’s win.

Despite the pressure from New Zealand, China led 1-0 after the first period when Hengan Lu scored an early goal. China doubled its lead when Zesen Zhang put the puck into the net after just 17 seconds into the second period.

Six minutes later Frazer Ellis scored New Zealand’s goal from a power play and the Kiwi fans could sense an upset.

But China’s two-goal margin was restored midway through the frame when Qing Liu scored to give China a 3-1 lead at the end of the second period. New Zealand was forced to play catch-up when Qing Liu scored his second goal after four minutes in the third period to give China a safe 4-1 cushion.

Turkey did a favour for New Zealand when it gained its first win of the championships by beating Mexico 2-1 in its final game. It meant New Zealand knew it had at least won the silver medal before it played China. If Mexico had won it would have taken the silver medal home.

For China, the gold medal victory mean a return to Division II, one year after the team was relegated. 

“That was good,’’ Russian coach Oleg Gorbenko said. “But as a coach I focus on the players performances. Some performed well and others had problems.’’

Gorbenko has been coaching in China at the Chengde club for the last six years and coached China’ U18 men’s team last year, winning promotion to Division II Group B.

He explained why the Chinese team was so dominant in the tournament.

“We trained hard as a team unit together,” he said. “China is applying to host the 2022 Olympics so we had to show that the standard of our hockey in the country has also improved.”

Gorbenko has made a huge impact on Chinese hockey and his goal is to help China lift itself up the international ladder. But he realises that it will be a long shot for China to compete at the 2022 Winter Olympics.

“We are ranked 38th in the world,’’ he said. “To get to the top 12 it is a long way to go.’’

The Chinese skaters at Dunedin displayed superior speed on the ice to other teams. They had a wider vision and an awareness where their teammates were on the ice and used this to their advantage.

This gave them extra time and space and tended to bamboozle their opponents who sometimes seemed to be more one-dimensional in their approach to the game.
Gorbenko credited the team’s success to its ability to quickly turn defence into attack. 

“The quick thinking was most important,’’ Gorbenko said.  “We were faster on the ice but the most important aspect is thinking on the skates. That is why the players can make a good pass.’’

A feature of the Chinese game was their ability to make use of the width of the arena and make effective use of shots off the wall. They had skilled backhand shots, slap shots at goal and one-timers when they quickly sent the puck in another direction, a rare ability for a team competing in Division III.

China was also able to get players in position to score goals off rebounds. This was highlighted in the 13-0 win against South Africa when six goals were scored from rebounds.

The best Chinese player at the tournament was defender Qing Liu, who scored eight goals and was in fact the top goal scorer at the championships. The tournament’s top four goal scorers were from China. Directorate Best Forward Hang Li scored four goals and four assists, Yongshen Liu and Zesen Zhang both put three pucks into the net.

Kiwis miss out at home

New Zealand, meanwhile, needed to beat Turkey in its second last game to keep alive its gold medal prospects.

It started well with goals to Frazer Ellis and Lachlan Frear in the first period.  But Turkey snatched one back in the final minutes when Huseyin Secer scored.

Turkey produced one of its best performances of the championships when it scored two goals in the second period to lead 3-2.

“It was frustrating,’’ New Zealand coach Stephen Reid said. “We had some good scoring opportunities but we couldn’t capitalise and at wrong times we took bad penalties. We know that IIHF referees adjudicate a tight game and we did not adjust to that in the first two periods.”

The gap before the start of the third period was a test of Reid’s coaching skills.

“We’ve always had the mantra of leaving the jersey in a better place than when they joined the team,’’ Reid said. “Only the better players are in the team for three years and we asked them to leave a legacy for the future.”

“We have worked at that a lot over the training period and the tournament and that was the question the coaching staff asked of the players before the third period.’’

The team responded by scoring three goals in the first nine minutes to take control of the game, winning the game 5-3 and setting up Sunday’s gold medal finale. 

“We wanted to set a tone before we played China,’’ said Reid, who was impressed by the Chinese. “They have a complete team,’’ he said. “They skate very hard across the ice, are very well coached and have a good goal tender.’’

Mexico, Turkey make impact

Mexico had a strong defence but the lack of scoring ability proved costly when they were in contention for the silver medal.

Mexico scored only eight goals in its four games, and the lack of offensive punch caught up to them in the final game when they lost to Turkey 2-1.

Mexico had to win that game to gain three points to edge past New Zealand on the points table. Mexico won the bronze medal at Izmir last year and had to be satisfied with the status quo in Dunedin.

“We have good skaters but we lack a little with our scoring ability,’’ head coach Adrian Cervantes said. “We play hard and make it tough for other teams to score against us.’’

The team’s highlight came early on in their game against the hosts. Third place Mexico lost to New Zealand 5-0 in 2014 and did not expect to beat them on the Kiwi’s home soil. But a 3-2 win by Mexico in a shootout turned out to be the biggest upset of the tournament.

“It was one of the most exciting moments in my life,’’ said Cervantes. 

The key to that win was the performance of goaltender Jaime Perez who was the No. 2 goalie when Mexico started the tournament.

“Jaime shut the door on New Zealand and stole the game for us,’’ Cervantes said. “It sure was a big upset.’’

Perez was the second-ranked goaltender at the championships. He saved 54 shots, only conceded two goals, and was named the Directorate Best Goalie of the tournament.

Turkey ended the tournament on a high note by winning its last game against Mexico 2-1 to come away with a victory in its final game and avoid a winless tournament. 

It was a special moment for assistant coach Yucel Citak who made his international debut for the Turkish junior team in 1994.

“It was 20 years ago and before all members of this year’s team were born,’’ he said. “Our team is very young and it was a difficult game for us today. But we wanted to beat Mexico and we did it.’’

Goaltender Berk Akin was the hero of the day and made 34 saves and conceded just one goal.

IIHF Directorate Awards:
Best forward, Li Hang (China).
Best defender. Ben Roth (New Zealand).
Best goalie: Jaime Perez (Mexico).



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