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Preview: IIHF Women’s World Championship Division II Group B

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The 2020 IIHF Women’s World Championship season continues this month with the Division II Group B tournament, which takes place February 23 to 29 in Akureyri, Iceland. Host country Iceland will be joined by the IIHF’s two member associations from Oceania (Australia and New Zealand), as well as the nations of Croatia, Turkey and Ukraine.

The full tournament schedule and live streaming of games can be found here.

What to watch for from all six teams:

AUSTRALIA

Australia will be looking to, at minimum, medal in Division II Group B having been demoted from Division II Group A last season.

“The goal for Team Australia is to medal,” said head coach Stuart Philps. The team last played in this division (and won gold) in 2016. “I’d say that our strength is our defensive zone coverage. The girls are well structured and committed to the details to eliminate shots on net.”

Forwards Natasha Farrier and Natalie Ayris will be returning to the national team, Farrier for the first time since 2012 and Ayris for the first time since 2018. With last year’s leading Australian scorer Kristelle Van Der Wolf missing from the roster, the team will be looking to players such as Farrier, Ayris and Michelle Clark-Crumpton to provide some much needed offence.

“We also have a young goalie making her debut on the senior women’s team, Olivia Last,” said Philps. Fifteen year old Last has represented Australia twice at the U18 level, and this season is playing with RoKi Rovaniemi in Finland’s women’s league.

CROATIA

Croatia barely avoided relegation last season, coming in fifth with one win over relegated Romania and finishing with the fewest goals scored out of any team with seven. Just three players, Martina Smolec, Ana Širanović and Eva Čavka, scored for Croatia.

“Our main goal is to introduce some of our younger players to the national team, since six players retired last year,” said head coach Miro Smerdelj. “Of course, staying in our division is always important.”

Smerdelj cites goalie Petra Mlinarević as one of the team’s strengths. Mlinarević is a mainstay on the national team, having made her debut in 2007.

Players to watch also include twins Eva and Tena Čavka, who currently play for IF Troja-Ljungby in Sweden’s Division I league, young star Lea Buljeta, who will be making her national team debut, and Anja Kadijević, who used to play in the NCAA and currently plays in England.

Croatia has moved between different World Championship levels a fair amount over the last few seasons. The country competed in the Division II Group A tournament in 2016, but in 2017 they didn’t participate in any event. They returned to IIHF competition in 2018, winning the Division II Group B Qualification tournament.

ICELAND

Iceland’s skaters were scoring machines in 2019, racking up the most goals of the tournament with 21. This helped the team to a bronze medal, their third in the last four years. Leading the team and tournament in scoring with 13 points was Top Forward recipient and team captain Silvía Björgvinsdóttir.

“Our goal for the 2020 Women’s World Championship is to take the gold home and go up to Division II Group A,” said Björgvinsdóttir. “We know it’s going to be a tough week, but we are all ready to fight for it and give it our all. We were so close to winning our division last year, but lost the battle in our last game. I have faith that 2020 is going to be Iceland’s year.”

Iceland has strengths in all areas of the ice, from offence to defence. The team lay claim to three of the 2019 tournament’s top four face-off leaders in Berglind Leifsdóttir, Sunna Björgvinsdóttir and Jonina Gudbjartsdóttir, and has a strong and smart up-and-coming defender in Saga Blöndal. Sarah Shantz-Smiley and Kolbrún Garöarsdóttir are also regularly noted as key players on the team because of their work ethic and leadership.

“We have a variety of young and talented players and then we have experienced players who have been on the team since the beginning,” said Silvía Björgvinsdóttir. “I feel like our biggest strength is how we play in the offensive zone. We feel good there and we get a lot of good chances, but we still can be better with our finishes and getting the puck in to the net.”

NEW ZEALAND

New Zealand will be looking to earn promotion to play in Division II Group A for the first time since 2015. Last season they won the Division II Group B silver medal, and will likely be fighting with neighbour Australia for the top spot.

“We are going for gold on and off the ice,” said coach Rachel Park. “We believe that if we focus on the process, we prepare properly and we work on being the best athletes we can be, we will be a gold standard off the ice and it will translate to a gold medal team on the ice.”

New Zealand was tight defensively in 2019, with Krystie Woodyear-Smith claiming the Top Defenceman title and the goalie tandem of Lochlyn Marie Hyde and Grace Harrison wowing with their statistics. Hyde will return in net, this time with Danielle Strayer, who was a goaltender growing up, but made her Ice Fernz debut last year as a defender.

At the other end of the ice, New Zealand also has many strengths. Jasmine Horner-Pascoe, who was second in scoring in 2019 with 12 points (six goals, six assists) is returning, and Jana Kivell, who has had an impressive NZWIHL season with 21 points in seven games, will be making her senior national team debut.

“We are a very relentless, determined and hardworking team that will battle until the last buzzer regardless of what the score is,” said captain Helen Murray. “That strength has served us well in tight games.”

TURKEY

Turkey’s closest competition in 2019 was Croatia, the only team they beat; relegated Romania beat Turkey 5-4 in overtime and the team lost their remaining three games in regular time.

A shining light on the team is Cagla Baktiroğlu, a dual Canadian-Turkish citizen who spent two seasons with the University of Windsor and tied Iceland’s Silvía Björgvinsdóttir for most goals of the 2019 tournament with eight.

“Her contribution cannot be unseen as she plays a critical role in scoring,” said coach Merve Tunali, who also lists young rising stars Ayse Koçak and Ebrar Oğuz as ones to watch.

“We have players competing in different leagues around the world such as the USA, Norway, Canada and Australia. Even though we do not have a chance to train all together, the variety of experiences create harmony and each player brings her sight to the game,” said Tunali.

“We want to do our best and take a medal to our country. In short or middle term, we want to move to an upper division as women’s hockey in Turkey continues to grow. Comparing the number of women athletes to 10 years ago, we see that the number of players is continuing to rise with increasing quality. As we continue to grow, we want to move to upper divisions as fast as we can.”

UKRAINE

This will be Ukraine’s second IIHF Women’s World Championship. The team made its debut last season in the Division II Group B Qualification tournament, in which it went undefeated to earn promotion to Division II Group B.

“Ukrainians are strong in spirit, we fight to the end,” said team captain Diana Kovtun. “All the girls set one goal for themselves, to help the team win the game. We will try to win with the help of discipline and the clear implementation of our coach’s instructions.”

“We have only one goal for the World Championship – victory,” said Yulia Dobrovolskaya. “Hockey at the international level is a completely different game, a different level, and you treat everything differently because on your jersey you have the coat of arms of your country.”

“We are very strong in net with Nataliya Kozachuk, and rely on her to make strong saves,” said Tatyana Tkachenko. Twenty two year old Kozachuk, who has played for teams in leagues in Slovakia, Switzerland, Sweden, Latvia and Ukraine, will be making her national team debut.

“We are very strong defensively and are not afraid to have our defencemen jump into the play because of the strong play of our goaltender,” said Tkachenko. “But most of all our biggest strength is our character that we have all acquired in struggling to get women’s hockey this far in Ukraine.”

The 2020 IIHF Women’s World Championship Division II Group B tournament starts on February 23, with Ukraine playing Turkey in the opening game, and wraps up on February 29. Statistics and game results can be found here

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