Month: April 2018 (page 1 of 2)

Andras Benk has seen it all with Hungary

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By Szabolcs Zavodszky IIHF.com

For anyone who represents a country such as Hungary playing in the top division is a great accomplishment. Playing in two top-level World Championships during a career is a tremendous achievement and only a couple of Hungarian players have pulled off this feat, one of them being Andras Benk.

“If I remember correctly my first game for the Hungarian national team was in the Ice Palace against Croatia in November of that season. The final score was 3-3, and I scored in the shootout. In those early days I remember sometimes playing in one lineup with Gabor Ocskay Jr or Krisztian Palkovics. Pat Cortina was the coach at the time and would throw me in with them. These are great memories to look back at,” remembers Andras Benk when asked about his first experience with the national team.

The 30-year-old forward came along in Hungarian hockey in a peculiar time. He made his debut in the national team during the 2005/2006 season, two seasons later head coach Pat Cortina picked him to make his first World Championship, which happened to be where Hungary won promotion to the top division. The 2008 Hungarian team was made up of mostly players born between 1975 and 1980, which has become known as the golden generation in Hungarian hockey.

“It is an interesting situation. 10 years have passed without me really realizing it. I really didn’t notice the turnover on the team until we played for the 90th anniversary of Hungarian hockey when I was named the captain. We faced Poland and I was the oldest player on the team. The guys that were older or more experienced than me have stepped aside or retired,” said Benk as he talked about his observation.

During the season he and Janos Vas were the oldest players still carrying the torch and getting ready to pass it to the next generation of players that are breaking in and possibly the next golden generation (born between 1994-1997).

“I am the link between the older generation and the guys coming up right now. My teammates back then had grown up in a completely different world than the ones that are coming up right now. However, we are playing hockey and chasing the little black puck on the ice and trying to put it into the back of the net. I am really enjoying this and as I am getting older I am noticing that I am enjoying hockey more and more. I hope to be a key member of not only the national team but my club team as well for the next few years.”

Vas spent most of his career playing in the top leagues throughout Europe and North America, Benk has spent his entire career in Hungary aside from playing one year in Sweden. Benk came up through the youth system of Dunaujvaros, which produced not only Benk and Vas but other Hungarian players such as Balazs Ladanyi, Viktor Tokaji, Marton Vas, Imre Peterdi and Zoltan Hetenyi. He debuted for the senior team in the Hungarian league before moving on to spend one season in Sweden playing for the U20 team for Huddinge.

“It is an interesting turn, it was a great experience for me to be playing with Ocskay, Palkovics or Balazs Ladanyi when I first played in the national team, playing in one line with them and assisting on one of their goals or scoring off of a pass from them was always a great experience. They have aged out and gotten older. I remember sitting in the stands or next to the glass and watch the great Dunaujvaros-Szekesfehervar matches, Levente Szuper was in the net, and Csaba Kovacs Jr. scored in a shootout for Fehervar with the stands jampacked with fans. Now I am the one, along with Janos Vas maybe, who can talk about what it used to be like. I do feel that the younger players look up to me and what I have accomplished, but I am always happy to pass on what I have experienced and learned to the next generation. The world and the hockey world have changed tremendously in the past 10 years. The game has picked up in speed and we are different style of play.”

Benk came back from Sweden and played for Szekesfehervar in the Austrian-based EBEL for nine seasons and has spent the past two playing for UTE in Hungary. On the international stage he has played in nine World Championship tournaments, which included two emotion-filled promotions to the top division and two appearances there in 2009 and 2016.

“I was very young in Sapporo, that was my first World Championship and I was very happy that Cortina had selected me to make the team. I was so young I don’t think I realized what was going on. I was just doing what I was told, just going and working hard. I was at the right place at the right time and it was an honour to play with the guys that I was on one team with. We won promotion again a few years later with a young team. It is a great feeling to be playing a larger part and to be an older player when we won promotion to the top division in 2015,” Benk said and continued:

“In 2009 in Switzerland we were only seconds away from picking up our first points in the top division against Slovakia. I assisted on Roger Holeczy’s goal in that game. We thought this was a great accomplishment but then this was followed up by a game against Canada and they cleaned the ice with us. But we needed to taste this so to learn and use the experience to be back sooner. In 2016 in Russia we had a better chance to stay in the top division and we played some great games. We have been playing against top-level teams recently. When I first started in the national team we would play matches against teams that were at our level or just below us. In the past few years we have been playing games against stable top-level countries in preparation for the World Championship. This helps the learning process for us and it is easier for us to adjust to their pace if we face more countries like this.”

Just since 2016 Hungary has played Italy, Austria, Slovenia, Kazakhstan, Sweden, Canada, Finland, Russia, Denmark and Korea outside of World Championship play.

The goal this season of course is to win promotion back to the top division under the guidance of new head coach Jarmo Tolvanen at the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A in Budapest.

“I really hope that the next step is that we become an ‘elevator’ country such as Austria or Slovenia and eventually be in the top division more often than in the Division I. We have more and more players playing in the top leagues in the world. We need a player to make it to the NHL and these chances are improving every year. Ádam Vay is right there and with a little luck he will have the breakthrough to make it to an NHL roster. With this eventually the national team will be in the top division. That would be a great experience not just for the players but also for the fans.”

Regardless of what happens in the next few years, what is for sure is that Hungarian hockey and anyone that Andras Benk has played with has only benefited with him being in and around the sport and he hopes to continue doing this for years to come. “I have two top-division appearances and good number of World Championships under my belt, this being said I am still only 30 years old, which in hockey is still a good age.”

Lithuania’s Dream Team aiming upwards

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By Henrik Manninen IIHF.com

Two years ago, on a balmy spring evening in Croatia’s capital Zagreb, an experimental and youthful Lithuania came within a regulation time goal from winning a sensational gold at the 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championships Division I Group B. With the 13,500-seater Zalgiris Arena in Kaunas now ready to open its doors for the 2018 edition of the tournament, hopes are high for Lithuania to achieve home glory and claim that much-coveted top spot.

In a year when their nation celebrates 100 years since first regaining independence, the Lithuanian Ice Hockey Federation is marking the grand occasion in high spirits. With the Lithuanian roster being labelled as ‘dream team’ and the faces of Dainius Zubrus, Mantas Armalis, Nerijus Alisauskas, Tadas Kumeliauskas and the 45-year-old debutant Darius Kasparaitis adorning the posters promoting the event, Lithuania certainly hasn’t shied away from raising the expectations.

Boosted by impressive ticket sales it is now up for the big-name players to rise up to the occasion in front of a home support expected to beat the average attendance of 6,032 dating back from four years ago when Lithuania’s capital Vilnius hosted the tournament.

“This is the biggest sporting event in the Baltics this year and held in the largest sports arena in the region. If everything goes right we look to finish first. There is no question about this unless we get a lot of injuries,” said Lithuania’s head coach Haake ahead of a festival of hockey awaiting in the country’s second city as Estonia, Croatia, Japan, Romania and Ukraine awaits between 22-28 April.

Optimistic while still doing his bit to keep a lid on expectations, the man Lithuania puts their faith in to guide them up the promised land of Division IA comes with vast experience within a game he first picked up on frozen lakes in Western Germany in the 1950s.

Bielefeld-born Haake’s international coaching career started as a 28-year-old assistant coach of what was then West Germany’s U18 national team at a European Championship in France 1974. After spending an eye-opening 18 months in Canada where he also first got to know Lithuania’s current assistant coach George Kingston, Haake returned to Europe where his first international appointment was as assistant coach when Spain’s senior national team made its IIHF World Championship debut in 1977.

With an eclectic coaching resume that includes working for Windhoek Cazadores in Namibia, Australia’s Sydney Allstars, Portogalete in Spain to that of winning the Italian league as head coach of Bolzano and assistant coach of top-level German teams Kolner Haie and Iserlohn Roosters, Haake has never shied away from relishing a challenge which seen him coach on four different continents.

The opportunity to acquaint himself with Lithuanian hockey arose when the affable Haake struck up a conversation with the President of the Lithuanian Ice Hockey Federation, Petras Nauseda, in Helsinki during the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship.

Fresh from having staved off relegation at the 2012 World Championships Division I Group B, Lithuania was then in the hunt for a new head coach to replace Sergei Borisov. They found their match in Haake, who jumped at the opportunity to try and reverse the waning fortunes of a national team that in 2006 had been one victory away from winning a place at the top-division of the World Championship.

“I became the first coach from a western country to coach Lithuania’s national team. In the past, they always had coaches from Russia, Belarus or Latvia. My first World Championship was in Donetsk 2013 and this is now my sixth year,” said Haake who also during three of those seasons worked as assistant coach of Lithuania’s U20 national team as well as the country’s top club Energija Elektrenai.

While greatly admiring the hard graft put in by the growing Lithuanian hockey community with its limited resources, he also readily points out some of the challenges he feels is holding back further progress in the Baltic nation.

“When you have the power you don’t want to lose it. To translate this into Lithuanian context, teams are not cooperating at youth hockey level and instead look after their own interests. We need strong teams from U12 to U18 level and have them come together once a month to play in tournaments, but it is not possible. We should look at Slovenia and what they do with their resources. Instead in Lithuania, we now have three to five good players in each team, but as they are not being challenged their level is now going down instead of up between the ages of 12-16,” said Haake, who also has started to feel the effect of this in certain positions at a national team level.

“The problem for Lithuanian hockey for the near the future is that we don’t have defencemen. We have the four veterans, Kasparaitis, Rolandas Aliukonis, Arturas Katulis and Mindaugas Kieras, all of them over 35. For the young players to continue their development they have to go abroad but it is not easy as a Lithuanian player to find a team to play for,” said Haake, who hopes the star-studded roster and wins out on the ice can add exposure to the Lithuanian game at home and beyond.

“People in Lithuania like hockey. We saw that already at the 2014 World Championships in Vilnius. This time around we will be helped by Kasparaitis who is playing for his own country for the very first time at a World Championship. Born 1972, like (Jaromir) Jagr, he is on the ice three times a week during the season, he played for us already in November and he is still in unbelievable good shape,” said Haake, who also has high hopes for another troika of big-name returnees ready to turn on a show in front of their home audience and offer that extra bit of edge that got them so tantalisingly close of getting their hands on the gold medals two years ago.

“Zubrus plays with together with Kasparaitis during the season in Miami and just as in 2014 he will be very good for us. Armalis is back in goal after two years and for the first time in many years, Tadas Kumeliauskas will play for us, so it looks like we will have a strong team,” said a hopeful Haake.

Fourth gold for Spain

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By Andy Potts – IIHF.com

Spain’s golden season continues with the men’s national team winning the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division II Group B on home ice in Granada.

The senior team’s success means the Spaniards have picked up four gold medals this season, securing promotions for the men’s U18 and U20 teams and the senior women’s roster. No other country, at any level of IIHF competition, has managed a comparable medal haul, with Spain ending its campaign with four golds from a possible five. All the successful teams were playing in Division IIB of their respective competitions.

The latest triumph came on home ice in Granada. The Andalusian city hosted the Winter Universiade in 2015, but it has a greater sporting tradition in bullfighting and football. This week, though, it had a chance to enjoy a glut of goals from a Spanish team determined to bounce straight back to Division IIA after relegation 12 months ago. The host nation rattled in 49 goals in five games, allowing just six, as it powered to top spot ahead of New Zealand thanks to a 6-4 success when the teams met.

As the seedings suggested, it all came down to Friday night’s decider against the Kiwis. Both teams had progressed through the competition without dropping a point, although the rampant form of the Spanish offence suggested the host nation might have the edge. Opening with a 15-1 drubbing of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Spain also enjoyed a 14-0 rout of Mexico and a 10-1 success over Luxembourg. With all-out attack at the heart of Luciano Basile’s team for this tournament, Spain took the same approach into the showdown with New Zealand, firing in 53 shots net Daniel Lee’s net.

Despite that, it took most of the first period to find a way through the opposing defence. A power-play goal in the 18th minute – Carlos Rivero winning the puck in the corner and feeding Alejandro Carbonell for a close-range wrist shot – finally broke the deadlock to give Spain a lead that its first-period dominance deserved. Carbonell, who plays his hockey in the French second tier with Annecy, is one of four players on the roster playing abroad. Bruno Baldris (Angers Ducs), Gaston Gonzalez (Montpellier Vipers) and Adrian Ubieto (Anglet Hormadi) also play across the border in France.

In the middle frame, the Spanish offence was rampant once again – and this time it converted chances into goals more readily, scoring four times on Lee. Patricio Fuentes set the tone in the 22nd minute, adding a second after Spain repeatedly prevented New Zealand from clearing its lines, and there were further tallies from Oriol Rubio, Oriol Boronat and Ignacio Granell.

However, the hitherto reliable defence – which had allowed just two goals in four games – began to wobble. New Zealand scored three of its own to remain in contention. Paris Heyd quickly converted a power play when he tipped home Callum Burns’ point shot, Aleksandr Polozov finished off after Jacob Ratcliffe’s shot was deflected into his path and Andrew Cox saw his point shot bounce off a defenceman and find the net. At the end of the middle frame, Spain led 5-3 and New Zealand, despite facing an onslaught, still believed it had a chance.

Boronat got his second of the night to make it 6-3 early in the third, but a power play tally from Frazer Ellis kept the Kiwis in contention. Now, though, a more cautious Spain slowed down the offence and closed out the victory to spark the gold medal celebrations at the final hooter. For New Zealand, it was a second successive silver medal after finishing runner-up on home ice last year.

Not surprisingly, Spanish players dominated the scoring charts to take four of the top five places. Boronat (5+7) led the way, with the Puigcerda player finishing one point ahead of team-mate Fuentes from San Sebastian. Seven goals for Boronat’s clubmate Pablo Munoz made him the top goalscorer and he was joined on 10 points by the tournament’s most productive defenseman, Ubieto. New Zealand’s Jordan Challis (3+7) also made the top five. Spain’s dominance ensured that the team allowed just 70 shots on its net over the five games. Ander Alcaine faced most of them and finished with a GAA of 1.49 on his way to the directorate award for top goalie, but Israel’s Nir Tichon also made a good case for honours with an SVG of 91.82%. Fuentes was the top forward and New Zealand’s Stefan Helmersson was top D-man.

Israel secured third place with a victory over Mexico in its final game to finish on nine points. That result also condemned Luxembourg to relegation. The team from the principality won its last game against DPR Korea and would have survived on that head-to-head result if Mexico had gained at least a point against Israel. Instead, though, the teams finished in a three-way tie with Mexico and Luxembourg sharing the same goal difference. The Mexicans’ 3-1 success in the head-to-head meeting kept the Central Americans in this section and sent Luxembourg back to Division III after just one season.

Comparisons to Sidney Crosby not easy for Alexis Lafreniere to ignore

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By

He’s heard all the chatter about how good he is right now and how much better he’s projected to become.

It’s something that’s hard for Alexis Lafreniere to ignore when he’s already being touted as a future first overall NHL Draft pick – not for this year, or even next, but in 2020.

There are even endless comparisons to Sidney Crosby, who shares the distinction of being a No. 1 pick by the QMJHL’s Rimouski Oceanic.

“A lot,” Lafreniere said when asked how often he hears is name in the same sentence as the Pittsburgh Penguins captain, “but I try to (disregard them). Eighty-seven is another player. He’s the best in the world. I try to do my job – what I do good.”

Lafreniere was the youngest but highest-scoring player at Canada’s world under-18 championship training camp last week. Canada’s tournament begins Thursday in Russia against the powerful Americans.

Hockey Canada waited until the second round of the CHL playoffs were complete before setting a roster for the opener, and only 2000-born players were being assured of selection. However, coach Don Hay said Lafreniere impressed early in camp and added he wouldn’t hesitate to give roster spots to younger players if they’re deserving.

Lafreniere then went out and netted a goal and added an assist in Canada’s first pre-tournament game, a 5-0 win over Slovakia on Sunday. He scored again in the final tune-up match, a 3-2 victory over Finland on Monday, to secure his place on the team.

His track record shouldn’t have left any doubt anyway.

Lafreniere was drafted first overall by Rimouski in 2017 after an 83-point effort with his hometown midget AAA Saint-Eustache Vikings. In his rookie QMJHL season he scored 42 goals as a 16-year-old — something no ‘Q’ player had done since Crosby.

Lafreniere also recorded 80 points with the Oceanic, becoming just the second person to reach that mark at his age since Crosby earned 135 points in 2003-04. (The other player is Angelo Esposito, an eventual Penguins first-rounder, who had 98 points for the Quebec Remparts in 2005-06.)

“I knew there was a lot of hype around him,” said goaltender Colten Ellis, a teammate on both Rimouski and Team Canada. “He’s fulfilled everything I thought he’d be.”

So, it’s not surprising Lafreniere is being mentioned in the same breath as Crosby, especially given the Rimouski connection.

Canadian assistant coach Daniel Renaud isn’t crazy about the references to the future Hall of Famer. But as the head coach of the rival Shawinigan Cataractes, Renaud knows full well the six-foot-one, 184-pound winger is a “dominant player.”

“He’s who he is. He’s Lafreniere,” Renaud said. “He’s gonna evolve into himself. It’s not fair to compare him to anybody right at this point in time. He’s just 16. But as a 16-year-old player, he was something to see this year. I’m really excited to have the chance to coach him.

“This year, every time we got a chance to play him, he made us pay the price big time. He got a couple points each and every night.”

Defending against Lafreniere requires the attention of every player on the ice, Renaud added.

Matching him one-on-one is a losing battle. When he does break through to get an unfettered chance, it’s a frightening proposition for the man in net.

“You never know what he’s going to do,” Ellis said. “He’s got a lot of tricks up his sleeve. It’s definitely a challenge every time he comes down on ya.

“He likes to do a little pump fake and go backhand, forehand, low blocker. He gets me with that quite a bit (in practice). But you can never cheat for it because, once he sees you cheating, he’ll just change it up and make you look stupid. He’s hard to read. He’s an awesome player.”

Lafreniere is quick to defer credit for his success to his coaches and teammates, particularly his over-age centreman and former Philadelphia Flyers prospect Samuel Dove-McFalls.

Lafreniere’s goal and point totals ranked second in QMJHL rookie scoring. The player ahead of him by two in each category was Halifax Mooseheads winger Filip Zadina – a projected top-five pick in the 2018 NHL Draft who’s two years older.

It seems like Lafreniere has taken a good first step towards the 2020 draft.

“Two years is a long time away. He can definitely handle it,” Ellis said. “He’s got a great mindset. He’s dealt with the pressure all year.”

There are areas in which Lafreniere can improve. Skating, shooting, and developing a consistent work ethic come to mind for Renaud.

His hockey sense, however, needs little tweaking.

“He sees everything on the ice, with and without the puck,” Renaud said. “When he has the puck, he can see open players that normally no one would be able to see. Without the puck, he’s able to find that free ice, open space, and get open and create offence out of nothing.

“You think you’re in full control and, bang, he sees something, and they have a pretty good scoring chance out of it.”

Sounds like No. 87, doesn’t it?

“It’s nice, but I think Crosby’s on another level,” Lafreniere said. “He’s already winning Cups and gold medals. I just try to do my stuff. That will be good.”

Dahlin tops Central Scouting’s final ranking of International skaters

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By Mike G. Morreale NHL.com

Defenseman Rasmus Dahlin of Frolunda in Sweden is No. 1 on NHL Central Scouting’s final ranking of International skaters for the 2018 NHL Draft, to be held at American Airlines Center in Dallas on June 22-23.

Central Scouting revealed its final list of the top International skaters and goaltenders, and top North American skaters and goaltenders, on Monday.

Dahlin (6-foot-2, 181 pounds), a left-handed shot, could become the first Sweden-born player chosen No. 1 since Mats Sundin by the Quebec Nordiques in 1989. He would be the first defenseman chosen No. 1 since Aaron Ekblad by the Florida Panthers in 2014.

“Dahlin is an exceptionally talented prospect who will be able to contribute, influence and impact a team’s fortunes much in the way that defensemen Erik Karlsson (Ottawa Senators) and Victor Hedman (Tampa Bay Lightning) have in the NHL,” said Dan Marr, director of NHL Central Scouting. “If you wanted to pick one player from the 2018 draft who could potentially be viewed as a generational talent, Rasmus would be the only candidate. There is that much respect for him and his abilities.”

Dahlin, who turned 18 on Friday, had 20 points (seven goals, 13 assists), a plus-4 rating, 30 hits, 36 blocked shots and 84 shots on goal while averaging 19:02 of ice time in 41 games in the Swedish Hockey League. He had three points (one goal, two assists) and a plus-3 rating in six SHL playoff games.

He was named the best defenseman at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship after he had six points, all assists, 25 shots on goal and a plus-7 rating while averaging 23:08 of ice time in seven games to help Sweden win the silver medal. He also was the youngest player on Sweden’s roster for the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics by seven years.

“Dahlin is in a class of his own,” said Goran Stubb, director of NHL European Scouting. “He’s fulfilled everything that was expected of him as a regular with Frolunda. He’s a smart two-way defenseman with a great set of tools, including skating, puck handling, vision, intelligence and shot.

“He’s not overly physical on the ice but he doesn’t shy away from the rough stuff.”

Dahlin opted to sit out the IIHF World Under-18 Championship, which runs April 19-29, in order to prepare for the NHL Scouting Combine in June. He played 74 games in 2017-18, including regular-season and playoff games for Frolunda, and with Sweden in international tournaments.

Rounding out the top five among European skaters are No. 2 defenseman Adam Boqvist (5-11, 168) of Brynas’ team in Sweden’s junior league; No. 3 right wing Vitali Kravtsov (6-2, 170) of Chelyabinsk in Russia; No. 4 right wing Martin Kaut (6-1, 176) of Pardubice in the Czech Republic; and No. 5 defenseman Adam Ginning (6-3, 196) of Linkoping in Sweden.

Boqvist, 17, is a right-shot defenseman who had 24 points (14 goals, 10 assists) and a plus-6 rating in 25 games with Brynas in the junior league, and one assist in 15 games with Brynas in the SHL. He’s the younger brother of New Jersey Devils forward prospect Jesper Boqvist (No. 36, 2017 draft).

[RANKINGS (PDF): North American Skaters | North American Goalies | International Skaters | International Goalies]

“Boqvist is an extremely skilled defenseman with excellent vision and tons of talent,” Stubb said. “He has good on-ice awareness, a good shot and is a finesse-type player who plays bigger than he is.”

Kravtsov, 18, was No. 10 on Central Scouting’s midterm list. He made a big jump after major strides in the second half of the season for Chelyabinsk in the Kontinental Hockey League. He had seven points (four goals, three assists) in 35 regular-season games, and 11 points (six goals, five assists) in 16 KHL playoff games.

“He’s gained more weight and is a powerful skater with balance and speed,” Stubb said. “He’s also gritty at times and has a no-quit attitude. A prototypical power-forward.”

Kaut, 18, had 16 points (nine goals, seven assists) in 38 games in the Czech Republic’s top professional league.

Ginning, 18, a left-shot defenseman, had two points (one goal, one assist) in 28 SHL games.

Lukas Dostal (6-1, 158) of Treibic in the Czech Republic’s second division, is the No. 1 on Central Scouting’s final list of International goaltenders. Dostal, 17, had a 2.43 goals-against average and .921 save percentage in 20 games.

“He has good overall net coverage with strong angle and positional play,” Stubb said. “When he is hot, he’s really good. But like many other young and inexperienced goalies, he’s a bit inconsistent from game to game. But he does play with a lot of desire, determination and confidence.”

Italian scores only goal for promotion

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By Andrew Podnieks – IIHF.com

Linda DeRocco scored the only goal of the game midway through the second period and Giulia Mazzocchi stopped all 21 shots to give Italy a 1-0 win over China on the final day of the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship Division I Group B.

The win puts Italy ahead of Korea in the final standings and give it a spot in the Division I Group A for next year. Italy will finish this year’s Women’s World Championship program 16th overall – its highest ranking it also reached in 1999 and 2005 – and will for the first time compete in the second tier of the Women’s Worlds. Its only previous appearance at higher level came when it hosted the 2006 Olympics in Turin.

Italy won the Division I Group B on home ice in Asiago before 550 fans in the final game. A tournament that saw a dramatic turn of events on the final day of the tournament. In the early game on Saturday, Korea hammered Poland, 9-2, to move into top spot with 11 points and a record of 3-1-0-1, putting Italy in a must-win situation in the evening.

The first period was tense and with few scoring chances, and China had a chance early in the second to open the scoring when Xin He hit the post from the slot.

DeRocco put the puck in at 10:17 of the second when her point shot hit a Chinese player in front and dribbled slowly past goalie Yuqing Wang.

Italy played flawless defence, but China nearly tied the game under most improbable circumstances. With a little more than two minutes left to play in the third, Zhixin Liu took a double-minor penalty, and all seemed to be lost for the Chinese.

At one point, though, they fired the puck down the ice and Mazzocchi mishandled the puck behind her goal. Minghui Kong picked it up and tried a quick wraparound. Mazzocchi made the acrobatic glove save facing her own goal, and Italy hung on for the win.

Korea was the only team to beat Italy, 3-2 thanks to two goals in the last three minutes of play from Randi Griffin and Chaelin Park, but had to settle for second place because of losing four points elsewhere. After their Olympic experience the Koreans, who came in as the promoted and lowest seeded team, were on fire and just one point away from earning a second straight promotion. But the Koreans lost an Asian clash between the last and next Winter Olympics host China 3-2 and lost a point in the 2-1 overtime win against Kazakhstan of the opening day.

The scoring and award race was dominated by the top-two ranked countries. Italy’s Eleonora Dalpra led with nine points (3+6) ahead of two Koreans, captain Jongah Park (4+3) and goal-scoring leader Yoonjung Park (5+0). Jongah Park, who two months earlier carried the Olympic torch to lit the cauldron as second-last athlete together with North Korean player Su Hyon Jong, was voted best forward by the tournament directorate. The other two individual awards when to Italians. Mazzocchi, who had the best save percentage with 94.62% tightly before China’s Yuqing Wang (94.44%), was named best goaltender and Nadia Mattivi best defenceman.

After starting the tournament with a loss, Latvia moved up in the standings and beat Kazakhstan for third place on the last day – 1-0 thanks to Sarma Ozmena’s goal.

China, which won bronze one year ago and had hope for more thanks to its ambitious program that includes two teams in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, finished the tournament in fifth place with two wins and three losses and will remain in the Division I Group B for 2019.

Although Poland finished in last place, it will not be relegated because the top level is going to ten teams. The group will be completed by the Netherlands next year.

France moves up

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By Andrew Podnieks – IIHF.com

Home ice suited France well in Vaujany this weekend as the French women claimed first place in the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship Division I Group A to earn promotion to the 2019 Women’s Worlds.

France will complete the top division that will be extended to ten teams for next year’s event in Finland.

The French finished their five-game round robin campaign with four wins and a loss, including today’s impressive 7-1 win over Slovakia ahead of Austria and Hungary, teams they had beaten before.

“We knew every game would be a challenge, but we were here at home playing in front of family and friends, so we felt we had to win,” said winning goalie Caroline Baldin. “Today, we played well again. We have a lot of solidarity among us, which was the difference. We fought hard every game.”

Although France has participated in the IIHF’s women’s program since 1999, this is the first time the nation will be in the top pool. The team’s only loss was a 2-1 decision to Norway last Monday.

“I think the thing we look forward to next year the most is playing against the top teams,” Baldin continued. “We’ll be able to see if the gap between us and the top teams is small or not. We hope to fight against every team.”

Although France has only a small number of women’s players, the advantage is that they are a dedicated group – to the game, and to each other.

“Many of us have played together for seven or eight years,” Baldin explained, “so we know each other really well. We grew up together and have known each other since we were 12. This year we were a bit lucky and came together. But even though we’ve been together a long time, we’re still a young team. I think our average age is about 23.”

Slovakia finished in last place with one win, but because the top pool is expanding from eight to ten teams it won’t be relegated.

In truth, tonight’s result didn’t mean much for France as it had advanced earlier in the day after Austria beat Norway and Hungary beating Denmark, both by 3-0 scores. Before Day 5, Norway had been the only team to beat France and could have caused a tie for first place at nine points with France and other teams if they had won in regulation time and if France had lost in regulation time. Neither happened.

France sealed its victory tonight thanks to three goals in a span of 4:20 early in the period. Chloe Aurard opened the scoring with a low shot that fooled Romana Kiapesova at 3:37.

A minute and a half later, Clara Rozier went end-to-end and finished with a pretty wrist shot to the far side to make it 2-0, and Margot Desvignes made it 3-0 on another chance from in close.

Slovakia’s coach, Jenny Potter, long-time star with Team USA, changed goalies, but that move couldn’t help the team’s offensive struggle. Late in the period the Slovaks had a two-man advantage for 52 seconds but didn’t generate any great scoring chances with the opportunity.

Aurard got her second midway through the middle period to give France even more breathing room but just a few minutes later Nikola Rumanova got Slovakia on the board.

Soon after, the team had a great opportunity to make a game of it when Lea Villiot was given a major and game misconduct penalty for hitting from behind, but Slovakia gave up a goal with the lengthy advantage, more or less sealing its fate.

For Baldin, the win caps a memorable season which saw her backstop the ZSC Lions Zurich to the women’s championship in Switzerland.

“I’ve made a lot of good friends with my club team in Zurich,” she enthused. “They’re like family to me. Even though they might play for Team Switzerland, that doesn’t matter. For the moment, this win today is the biggest win of my life. But last year at the Olympic qualification, we came close to beating Germany, and really close to beating Japan, so tonight it was amazing to finally win.”

Austria, after opening the tournament with a loss, improved to a silver-medal finish while Hungary won the bronze. Norway’s Ena Nystrom was named best goaltender by the tournament directorate while Gwendoline Gendarme of France was voted best defender and Fanni Gasparics, who led the tournament in scoring (6+4), won the award as best forward.

The 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship will include the United States, Canada, host Finland, Germany, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Japan and France. The host city and the dates will be announced soon. Next year’s Division I Group A will include Austria, Hungary, Denmark, Norway, Slovakia and Italy, which earned promotion tonight

A Cape Bretoner grows the game in China

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By Cape Breton Post

Jessica Wong was picked first overall by the Calgary Inferno in the 2013 Canadian Women’s Hockey League draft and after two seasons, called it a career.

Since then, she landed a job with Hockey Canada as a co-ordinator of membership development and lived in Calgary with her fiancée, high school sweetheart Mitchell Brewer of Baddeck, and their dog, Gus.

But an opportunity arose that she just couldn’t pass up: growing the game in China. It started with a call from Kunlun Red Star head coach Digit Murphy, who asked Wong to come out of retirement to join the fledgling club. The Red Star and the Vanke Rays were the two CWHL expansion teams from China for the 2017-18 season.

“At this point, it was not really about my career, it was about Team China,” said the 27-year-old, who’s back home in Baddeck for a visit. Players from Kunlun and Vanke skate for China’s national team that’s competing in the 2018 IIHF Women’s World Championship Division 1 ‘B’ Championship in Italy this week.

“I was kind of done with the more competitive stuff. I had a good run and a great career, and once I was able to put the more competitive side aside and focus more on them and try and help them grow, I just thought it was something I truly wanted to do. I was really glad I had the opportunity to be with them this first year.”

The Red Star team plays 45 minutes outside of Shenzen in southeast China, a city of over 12.5 million people located in Guangdong Province.

Wong said the sport has been growing steadily, but it did take some time. During the team’s first game, many fans who came out to watch were silent, mainly because they weren’t sure when to cheer or were unfamiliar with the rules of the game.

To remedy the situation, a program was printed for the next game that had team rosters, as well as a guide with the rules of hockey and when to cheer.

“It was pretty funny,” Wong said. “It’s got to start somewhere, right? We’re growing the game little by little and that’s something I’ll always remember.”

Although she came out of retirement, Wong didn’t lose a step. The blue-liner finished with 10 goals and 14 assists for 24 points in 28 games this season, led the team in ice time and was a finalist for the league’s defenceman of the year.

She also helped the squad move from expansion club to league contender. The Red Star reached the Clarkson Cup championship game but lost 2-1 in overtime to the Markham Thunder in Toronto on March 25.

“Overall, it was an amazing year,” said Wong. The Red Star finished with a 21-6-0-1 record for second place in the standings. “It was definitely more than we thought we could do and we’re super proud we were able to participate in the Clarkson Cup. Unfortunately, the outcome wasn’t what we wanted, but we definitely are proud of how we played all season.”

Playing in China also had a special meaning for Wong.

“Being half Chinese, my grandmother lived three hours south of Shenzen and it does really mean a lot, just to see what China’s all about,” she said. “It was my first time and it opened my eyes up a lot to see where she grew up and came from, it definitely means a lot. I’m really happy I took this experience.”

Wong is the most accomplished women’s hockey player ever from Cape Breton. She skated for Canada’s national women’s under-22 team in 2010 and 2011, winning gold at the MLP Cup both years. She also won gold at the 2009 IIHF World Women’s Under-18 Championship and was also a gold medalist at the 2015 Nations Cup with Canada’s women’s development team.

Wong played NCAA Division 1 hockey for four seasons at the University Minnesota Duluth. In her first season in 2009-10, she scored the winning goal in the third overtime to give the Bulldogs a 3-2 win over the Cornell Big Red in the final of the Frozen Four championship. She was named team captain in her final season in 2012-13 and graduated as the all-time leader in goal scoring among defencemen.

As for next season, Wong wasn’t sure what the future holds. She said there are still some community events and camps she’ll attend with the team this summer. In the meantime, she and her fiancée will get married in July.

Player Profile

Name: Jessica Wong

Hometown: Baddeck

Height: 5-6

Position: Defence

Age: 27

• Played for the Kunlun Red Star of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League in 2017-18.

• First overall pick of the Calgary Inferno in the 2013 CWHL draft.

• Four time gold medalist for Canada in international competition.

NHL Playoff Preview: A first glance at the eight first-round matchups

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By Jared Clinton – The Hockey News

The first round of the post-season gets underway Wednesday, but before we dive deep into each series, take a quick look at what to expect when the chase for the Stanley Cup begins.

It took until the last game of the season for the playoff matchups to be set, but the Boston Bruins’ loss at the hands of the Florida Panthers locked the two final post-season series into place. And with that, the hockey world can prepare for the two-plus month journey to the Stanley Cup with a look at the first-round matchups that will decide which teams extend their seasons and which will be joining the non-playoff clubs for some late-spring tee times:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

METROPOLITAN DIVISION
Washington Capitals (1) vs. Columbus Blue Jackets (WC1)

In other years, the Capitals entering the post-season as a top seed would come with big expectations. That’s not the case this time around, and that’s entirely the result of Washington fooling prognosticators time and again with earlier-than-expected playoff exits. It also doesn’t help matters for the Capitals that they’re entering a series against a Blue Jackets team that was one of the hottest in the NHL over the past month. The good news for Washington, however, is that the season series finished 3-1 in favor of the Capitals despite the fact the Blue Jackets held a significant edge in shots in each outing. This is a series that could come down to a battle of stars — Alex Ovechkin vs. Artemi Panarin — and goaltending.

Pittsburgh Penguins (2) vs. Philadelphia Flyers (3)
We wanted more Battle of Pennsylvania, and we’re getting more Battle of Pennsylvania. There’s little doubt this is going to be one of the most heated series of the first round as there’s no love lost between the Penguins and Flyers. As for who wins the battle, though, the season series would seem to suggest this is going to be lopsided. Pittsburgh scored five goals in each of the head-to-heads during the regular season en route to a 4-0 sweep of the season series, but two of those contests were overtime wins and the Penguins’ defense is going to be tasked with shutting down a Claude Giroux who has returned to world-beating form. The playoffs can be a different animal, and in a series with this much emotion, no result would be shocking.

ATLANTIC DIVISION
Tampa Bay Lightning (1) vs. New Jersey Devils (WC2)

Based purely on seeding and regular season performance, the assumption would be that this is the Lightning’s series to lose. Thing is, that’s exactly what Tampa Bay did during the regular season. Three times the Lighting and Devils squared off during the regular season. Three times New Jersey came out on top. In fact, Tampa Bay is the only Eastern Conference team who lost every one of their outings against New Jersey this season, so maybe this is the best possible draw for the Devils. Even with that said, though, one worries about an inexperienced New Jersey group taking on a Tampa Bay team that knows what it takes to win in the playoffs, and the sure-to-be increased focus on Taylor Hall means the Devils may have to find another hero to drive them to victory.

Boston Bruins (2) vs. Toronto Maple Leafs (3)
Seven points may have separated the two teams during the regular season, but the margin was even thinner than that. Both Boston and Toronto traded 4-1 victories at separate points during the campaign, while the other two contests were decided by a single goal — and both of those outings were Bruins losses. It should be noted, however, that two of those games came in the first half of the season, before Boston became one of the NHL’s juggernauts. In the second half, the Bruins went a remarkable 29-10-6 and were two points off the league lead from January onward. Toronto wasn’t far off, finishing seventh in the second half, but a healthy Boston lineup is as scary and as deep as any in the league.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

CENTRAL DIVISION
Nashville Predators (1) vs. Colorado Avalanche (WC2)

The Avalanche won a crucial game, a winner-take-all battle with the St. Louis Blues, to earn the right to make the playoffs. Unfortunately, sneaking in as the second wild-card team also comes with the task of playing the Predators in the first round. Nashville was nearly unstoppable in the second half of the campaign and Ryan Ellis’ return rounded out an already lethal blueline to give the Predators arguably the most complete lineup of any team in the post-season. The season series doesn’t offer Colorado much hope here, sadly. Four losses, three by two or more goals and one that was decided in overtime. If Nathan MacKinnon is shut down by Nashville’s defense corps, this series could be a quick one.

Winnipeg Jets (2) vs. Minnesota Wild (3)
Winnipeg comes into this series as the regular season’s second-best, a group that’s deep offensively and defensively and one that has received stellar goaltending throughout the campaign. But getting by Minnesota, their cross-border rivals, is going to be no easy task. Sure, the Jets won the season series, but two of their three victories were of the one-goal variety and the Wild carried play at even strength. Winnipeg’s home-ice advantage might help decide the series, though, as Minnesota finished the season two games below .500 on the road, giving them the second-worst road record of any Western Conference playoff team. The Jets, meanwhile, had more wins at home than any other team in the NHL.

PACIFIC DIVISION
Vegas Golden Knights (1) vs. Los Angeles Kings (WC1)

The Golden Knights’ success this season led them to top spot in the Pacific Division and sees them enter their first-ever playoff series as the betting favorites. The long look makes it clear why, too. Vegas had the league’s fifth-most potent offense, eighth-most staunch defense and both special teams units ranked just outside the top third in the NHL. Over the final quarter of the campaign, however, the Kings scored only one fewer goal, allowed 11 fewer against, had a power play that operated at only a slightly lower rate of success and boasted the NHL’s second-best penalty kill. Los Angeles also went 15-8-3 to Las Vegas’ 14-9-3 from mid-February onward. This might be a top seed-versus-wild-card club battle, but the on-ice play will be much tighter than the standings suggest.

Anaheim Ducks (2) vs. San Jose Sharks (3)
If the season series is any indication, hockey fans in California are going to have some late nights watching the Ducks and Sharks. Of the four outings played between the two teams, three went to extra time and all three needed to go beyond overtime to decide a winner. That’s how razor-thin the margin between these two clubs has been all season. It should be noted, however, that Anaheim has yet to face this post-deadline San Jose group, which has seen a significant boost in offense since the arrival of Evander Kane. The Sharks were the sixth-highest scoring team after the trade freeze, fifth-best defensively and one of the better possession teams in the NHL. That said, getting pucks past a healthy John Gibson with any consistency is going to be a tough task, and goaltending is a definite edge for Anaheim. Buckle up for this one.

Mongolia win IIHF Challenge Cup of Asia on goal difference

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By Dan Palmer – Inside the Games

Mongolia won the International Ice Hockey Federation Challenge Cup of Asia on goal difference as three nations ended the round-robin tournament on nine points.

The Mongolians, as well as hosts The Philippines and Thailand, all finished the event with three victories and one defeat following today’s concluding matches.

It meant the winners were decided by taking into account the three teams’ results against each other with their matches against Singapore and Kuwait discarded.

Thailand had beaten The Philippines 7-4 at the SM Mall of Asia Ice Skating Rink in Pasay, with the hosts then beating Mongolia 6-5.

Mongolia’s 5-1 win over the Thais yesterday meant all three teams beat each other and the margin of their success was crucial as they ended on the best goal difference of plus three.

Thailand ended on minus one to finish second with the hosts in third on minus three.

Mongolia had never before won the event.

Both The Phillippines and Thailand recorded massive wins today, with Mongolia not in action, but they proved irrelevant in the final reckoning.

The Thais beat Kuwait 12-1 before the Filipino outfit roared past Singapore 15-0.

Kuwait have finished bottom and will be relegated to Division One for 2019, to be replaced by Malaysia.

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