By Andy Potts – IIHF.com
Croatia made a successful return to IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship action with victory in the Division II Group B Qualification tournament in Sofia.
The Croats didn’t enter a team to compete last year, and had to drop down to the lowest level of the women’s game as a result. But, under the guidance of fledgling head coach Miro Smerdelj, a Croatian men’s international until 2013 and still playing for Mladost Zagreb in the new cross-border International Hockey League, the team swept through a five-team group that also included host Bulgaria, top seed Belgium, South Africa and Hong Kong.
That represented a fine return to international action for Croatia’s women, who last played in an IIHF tournament in 2016 when it suffered relegation from Division IIA. Now the team will play in next season’s Division IIB tournament.
Croatia’s rampant offence fired in 27 goals in four games – but the crucial one came 17 minutes into its meeting with top seed Belgium. The Croats were killing a penalty at the time, but Ela Filipec intercepted a pass on her own blue line and set off for goal. The 26-year-old, who plays her club hockey for Gric Zagreb in the Austrian league, danced her way around three opponents to get up close with Belgian goalie Nina van Orshaegen. Her first shot found the pads, but she recovered to lift the rebound onto the top shelf and give her team a vital lead.
The goal proved decisive. Filipec’s Gric teammate Petra Belobrk made 25 saves at the other end as Croatia posted its third shut-out of the tournament and denied a Belgian team that finished with 26 goals from its three other games. Nobody could find a way past van Orshaegen again at the other end, but that short-handed effort was enough to win the game and, ultimately, the group. Belgium won its other three games to take second place.
Croatia’s defensive power meant that it took 212 minutes of tournament action before it finally allowed a goal. Bulgaria’s Aleksandra Popova was the woman who solved Belobrk at last, converting a power play opportunity to claim the host nation’s first goal of the competition. Anna Evstatieva scored another power play goal shortly afterwards, but Croatia romped to a 12-2 victory. In 240 minutes of hockey, the group winner did not allow a single goal while playing at even strength.
Much of that solidity derives from a roster that drew heavily on the Gric club, currently playing in Austria’s cross-border DEBL. Filipec and fellow blue-liner Martina Smolec are among the leading scorers in that league in the early stages of this season, and eight of the national team currently play there. With another player, Katja Bednjanec, also playing in Austria for the Klagenfurt Dragons, and 16-year-old twins Tena and Eva Cavka involved with Slovenia’s HK Celje, there’s a measure of international experience about this Croat roster.
Behind the Croats, Belgium recovered from Thursday’s narrow loss to beat South Africa 3-0 in Saturday’s final game and claim second place behind Croatia. The team also impressed defensively, allowing just two goals in the competition. First-choice goalie van Orshaegen finished as the best netminder of the tournament, with a GAA of 0.33 and a save percentage of 97.5. Filipec’s effort was the only one to beat her all week; the other goal scored on Belgium went past Liesl Kuypers in a 14-1 win over Hong Kong. South Africa took third place, while Saturday’s match-up between Bulgaria and Hong Kong saw the host let a 1-0 lead slip in the third period to lose 1-2 and finish in last place without a single victory.
Among the skaters, defenceman Filipec led the scoring by a huge margin. She finished with six goals and 10 assists for 16 points. Her closest scoring rivals, team-mate Vesna Gurka and Belgium’s Sonja Frere, managed eight each. Filipec’s six goals also made her joint leading goalscorer for the competition, tying with Dalene Rhode (South Africa) and Femke Bosmans (Belgium).