By Henrik Manninen – IIHF.com
Norway – Norway keeps their Olympic dreams alive as they roll on to the Final Olympic Qualification where a place for PyeongChang 2018 is up for grabs.
Winning the Women’s Olympic Qualification Preliminary Round 3 Group F on home ice in Stavanger, the hosts sealed their progress after beating Slovakia 6-2 during the final day. Norway, who earlier had seen off Hungary (4-0) and Kazakhstan (5-0), was never shaken nor stirred as they racked up three victories in as many days. Hungary grabbed second spot followed by Slovakia and Kazakhstan.
The win means that Norway will now travel to Arosa, Switzerland, for the final round of the Olympic Qualification where Switzerland, the Czech Republic and Denmark await between 9th and 12th February 2017. The other group of the Final Olympic Qualification includes Japan, Germany, Austria and France.
Mathea Fischer led the way offensively for Norway with two goals and an assist during their final day win against Slovakia, while at the other end, netminder Ena Nystrom made 19 saves in a team-effort which bodes well for the future.
“Our girls stayed confident all the time, we had a few penalty kills too many, but everyone worked together and stayed positive and that’s what I expect from them,” said Norway head coach Laura Rollins.
In their deciding game against Slovakia, Norway got themselves in front at 13:36 when Helene Martinsen broke the deadlock, before getting into trouble with Madelene Haug-Hansen being the culprit of a misconduct penalty call with 70 seconds left before the first intermission.
Having one more player for five minutes, Slovakia capitalised 45 seconds into the second frame when Tatiana Istocyova tied the game after her shot found its way past Nystrom in Norway’s net, who conceded her first goal of the tournament after more than 140 minutes of play. Buoyed by their goal, the Central Europeans looked for more goals while still on the power play, but spurned opportunities proved to be costly in the end.
“Our efficiency in front of the net was bad today and playing five minutes power play and managing only one goal is not enough, especially with the pressure being on us to win this game,” said Slovakia’s head coach Andrej Schober on one of the key moments of the deciding encounter which soon again titled over in Norway’s favour.
Being on a two-player advantage saw Fischer become the instigator which saw Millie Sirum, who only last month turned 16, put Norway back in the driving seat with her 2-1 goal at 5:41 of the middle frame. Just over two-and-half minutes later, the home crowd was on their feet once again. After Slovakia’s captain Livia Lucova had spurned a good opportunity to tie the game, moments later Andrea Dalen combined with Fischer at the other end to stretch Norway’s lead to 3-1.
An alert Viktoria Ihnatova reacted quickest as Iveta Klimasova’s slapshot rebounded off the boards to pounce in front of Nystrom in Norway’s net to reduce the arrears to one goal at just after the midway mark of the second period.
But come the third period, Norway began to dominate proceedings. The hosts came out storming out in the final frame, won the shots 15-6 and went ahead 4-2 at 1:06 thanks to a low shot by influential blueliner Lene Tendenes.
“Before the third period we made an adjustment on the forecheck, that Slovakia didn’t adjust to,” said Rollins. “Once we got our two-goal lead back, our girls settled down a bit and it was a bit easier to keep the puck deep in the zone and play for the win,” she continued.
Fischer charged down in front of the net from the right side to score her second of the evening at 8:15, before with 4:58 left of the contest and on a two-player advantage Silje Holos put the final nail in the coffin with her 6-2 goal which closed the scoring.
Hungary finished the tournament in second place. Following a tepid display against Norway during the opener, they responded the following day by battling display to down neighbours Slovakia 2-0 before two strong periods was enough to see off Kazakhstan 5-2 in their final game.
“We were a bit afraid in our first game when the Norwegian team put big pressure on us and we could not handle it,” said Hungary’s head coach Tibor Marton. “We were really down mentally after the first game, but I am proud of my team and the way we managed to improve for the next two games.”
Kazakhstan, who had arrived to Norway well ahead of time on 9th December, suffered three straight defeats but has plenty to look forward to during what is a very busy season for them with Winter Universiade, the Asian Winter Games and the Women’s World Championship looming in 2017.
“We had hoped for better performances from our players during this tournament and I am especially disappointed with how we lost the third period in all of our matches,” said Kazakhstan head coach Alexander Maltsev.
Having failed at the final hurdle for the previous three Winter Olympics, Norway is relishing the challenge of locking horns against higher-ranked nations that await in February.
“Obviously it’s going to be a step up for us. Teams that we hope to play against in the top division one day. Our goal is still to move up to the primary pool with the top countries of the world. This will be a good test for us and I think we can bring a pretty good battle against some of those teams,” said Rollins.