Thunderbirds assistant coach leads Serbian team to world championship

by Bill Modrich

Serbia storms to gold

The Serbian juniors celebrate gold on home ice at the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship Division II Group B.
photo: Ivica Veselinov 

A dramatic final day of action in the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship Division II Group B saw host nation Serbia claim top spot.

Going into Sunday’s play in Belgrade, the Netherlands held the strongest hand following an overtime win over the Serbs during the week. If the Dutch had managed to defeat China, gold would have been theirs. China, though, still had a chance of promotion if it could win – and a Chinese victory would also open the door for Serbia if it could defeat Belgium in the last action of the event.

The early stages suggested that it would be Dutch delight in the Balkans. An early goal from Dean Versteeg put the Netherlands 1-0 up on China and even after an equalizer on the power play, Jay Huisman quickly restored that advantage. But that was as good as it got. China tied it up midway through the game on a power-play goal from Kailin Chen and went on to win it when Jing Wang made it 3-2 early in the third. Wang, a prospect with the KHL’s Kunlun Red Star, finished the tournament with 11 (5+6) points, tying for leading goal scorer with two Serbian sharpshooters.

That was the Netherlands’ first defeat in the tournament and it ended Dutch hopes of claiming gold. China was now in top spot, but needed Belgium to stop the host nation if it was to hold on to that position. The Belgians, though, promoted to this level last season, had lost all four previous games in the group and hopes of an upset evaporated in a first period that brought five unanswered Serbian goals.

Kristijan Savovic got things rolling after just 79 seconds, cashing in after Antonije Bogdanovic caught a Belgian defenceman in possession in his own zone. Savovic then returned the favour as Bogdanovic doubled the home lead from close range before Mateja Popovic potted twice in quick succession and Aleksa Gvozdanovic added a fifth. All this inside the first 11 minutes, and Serbia was on its way to gold.

Belgium swapped goalies at the start of the second period but incoming Rune Vuerinckx would enjoy little more success than Ignace van Noten. Once again, Serbia hit five in a frame, with Popovic completing his hat trick and Bogdanovic scoring again. Further tallies from Marko Dragovic and Stranhinja Vdovic helped the Crvena Zvezda Belgrade pair towards an 11-point haul that put each of them at the top of the scoring charts alongside China’s Wang. Late in the frame, Belgium got on the scoreboard at last through Lucas Boni and Jonas Steeno to make it 10-2 at the second intermission. Two further tallies in the third period completed an emphatic victory for the host nation as Nemanja Jankovic’s team secured top spot in fine style.

The U18 success here follows Serbia’s U20 gold back in January. This roster, like its elder counterpart, benefited from several players returning from last year’s third-placed finish in Zagreb. High scorers like Vdovic and Dragovic both demonstrated the progress they had made over the past 12 months, while goalie Dusan Ilijin stepped up to the number-one role and stopped 91.67% of the shots he faced in his three games.

Serbia wasn’t the only nation to show an improvement in this year’s competition. China climbed from fifth in Zagreb to second here, while the Netherlands took bronze after missing the medals last time. Australia, relegated from Division IIA a year ago, struggled to live up to its top seeding while newly-promoted Belgium suffered a swift return to Division III without winning a game.

The scoring was dominated by Vdovic (8+3), Dragovic (6+5) and Wang (5+6), with Vdovic getting the award for top forward. Dutch defenceman Ernesto Klem claimed the award for top blue liner with 5 (1+4) points, while there were also notable contributions from home defencemen Lazar Pejcic (seven assists), Bogdanovic (3+3) and Gvozdenovic (3+2). Jowin Ansems (Netherlands) was chosen as the leading goalie after stopping 93.48% of the shots he faced as he backstopped his team to four victories.

International play returns to Belgrade’s Pionir Ice Rink next week when the men’s 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division II Group A takes place from 9-15 April. Serbia entertains Croatia, China, Australia, Belgium and Spain.