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Mexico Gets the Job Done in Akureyri

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Memories goes back to three years ago when Iceland hosted the World Championship division 2B for women the last time and a lot has changed, I really mean A LOT has changed.

A quick recap to the tournament that was hosted in 2014 in Reykjavik. Croatia won the gold beating their rival neighbors Slovenia by an inch, Spain finishing third. We also had Iceland, Belgium and Turkey in that tournament and I can honestly say that was the moment I fell in love with the 2nd division levels of the World Championship ladder.

The level since then has risen a lot for these teams and I have no doubt the top 4 in this years tournament would have totally crushed those from three years ago, surely a good sign of developing hockey nations growing stronger and better. Unfortunately for example Belgium had a setback just returning to the international scene this season after two years on the sidelines and Croatia which was supposed to once more take place in 2B after two years in 2A, however they didn’t get to go thanks to their own federation …
Based on no team coming down from 2A, Turkey got a free pass for another year in 2B despite being relegated last year. And of course predictions were that Spain and Iceland would be the front-runners for this tournament placing 2nd and 3rd after Australia who got promoted from the group. Mexico silently approaching from behind and New Zealand were hard to guess after the unexperienced team they put up last year finishing second to last.

Upon the arrival date the snow also came to Akureyri which delayed not only myself but also a bunch of the referee´s coming on the same plane along with the tournament chairman and official doctor among with a wide selection of other tourists naturally. We did however finally arrive in time to have a good night’s sleep and then it was time to begin.

Turkey-New Zealand first to take the ice in the lone rink in Akureyri, lone but a very nice establishment laying just south of the city centre and beautifully set along a series of small lakes and surrounded by snowy mountains in every direction. The game was somewhat of a reprise of last years relegation game although both teams have changed a lot since then and it was a dominant start for the Fernz (NZ) who came out pumping on all cylinders and this time Anjali Thakker were not alone on the attack. I mean sure she scored three of the first four goals for NZ assisting on the last so she got the team scoring going, but there were now more to the team both offensive and defensive. Early tournament nerves on both teams though and even if it felt like a sure thing Turkey came back with a couple of goals and did put some pressure on the kiwis, still outlasting Turkey to a 5-3 win to start the tournament.
So for the first real clash of the week as Mexico and Spain laced up for game two and I will say it looked a bit like Spain were still in a bit of a slumber from the start letting in two early goals in the game which later would turn out to be right out decisive for the whole tournament. Spain pushed their way back in the game with a second period goal but it never got closer than that and despite the offensive tries the Mexicans played a very patient and tight defensive game letting Monica Renteria do her thing in net. Mexico off to an excellent start finally defeating Spain 3-1 and on the other hand Spain’s road to gold just became a lot more difficult.
Late night and I would get to see Romania for the first time at senior level, knowing Iceland had a very strong team last year I wasn’t expecting much of a game. Flosrun Johannesdottir started the scoring and she still looks as amazing on the ice as she did the last time I was on Iceland for hockey, shows some players simply never ever fade! Then the hometown girls took over the show, especially Silvia and Sunna Björgvinsdottir who put up a real show for the nearly filled up crowd in the rink they grew up playing in. Iceland winning their home opener 7-2 over Romania.

Day two would be kind of the same for Spain struggling to get their speed on and again they got two goals in the back right from the start, this time from the Fernz. However the bounceback went a bit better today and it was tied before the end of the first period! Both teams kept trying to increase both speed and pressure without much luck where two scoreless periods took the game into overtime. When the time came for a hero it was Ainhoa Merino who stepped up with some nifty moves in front of the New Zealand crease and Spain got the bonus point. At this point I realized Spain would be out of the gold medal race since from what I know, no team has ever won a world championship with only 11 points. Still I made some calculations and seeing how even the top four teams here are it would be a reach but somehow a possible reach to make it a four team tie, so I of course kept on encouraging the Wolfpack to keep their hopes up.
The supposed relegation game between Turkey and Romania were next on the schedule and what a rollercoaster ride it would be. After two quick goals for Turkey by Cagla Baktiroglu I thought the game was over already, but boy was I wrong! Halfway through the period Romania had catched up those two goals and before the first break Turkey once again took the lead. Back for more in the second as it only took Ana Voicu 15 seconds to tie the game up again! Baktiroglu stepped up with another pair of goals and this time it did hold for Turkey, basically securing their place in next years division 2B.
Darkness fell and there was time for another strong divider in the tournament as Iceland took on Mexico. I would say Iceland more or less controlled the game and still Mexico brought forth that ability to get the job done with great efficiency holding a 2-2 tie with only minutes to go of the game when Claudia Tellez stepped up with a clutch solo performance sniping home a huge goal above the shoulder of Elsie Väljaots who virtually didn’t leave any room beneath the crossbar and still there it went. Iceland tried going for a equalizer by pulling out Väljaots but without any luck, instead captain Chavez could roll in the 4-2 lead for Mexico winning their second straight and a huge win at that.

After an eventless off day mostly keeping track of the quarter final results in the Swedish playoffs we were about ready to get this exciting tournament going again. As a sidenote it’s a small task to explore the city of Akureyri by foot, if you want to find more spectacular adventure I would recommend renting a car because the Icelandic scenery is the most majestic thing you can experience here.
Not too much to say about the games between Spain and Romania or Iceland versus Turkey, both ended in big number for the top teams. Although Romania did hold Spain down to a 2-1 lead before all hell broke loose in the third period with the game ending 8-1. Huge credit for the tight numbers to Romania’s young goalie Andrea Kurko who really stood on her head making all kinds of athletic saves.
The game of the day was Mexico against New Zealand and it was tight, really tight as the Fernz had started to get up to speed after the mediocre start of the week. Lots of back and forth in the game before Giovanna Rojas came up from nowhere with a wrap-around goal catching Hyde in the New Zealand net totally by surprise midway through the game. Who knew what impact that goal would have on the game then? The Fernz kept pushing forward and were the better team in the majority of the game, however once again there was Monica Renteria with a great day at work keeping out the pucks and managing to shutout New Zealand. Now it felt more or less certain they would get the gold medal needing a win over either Romania or Turkey.
And it turned out a task easily achieved the next day punishing Romania 6-0, so the gold was now settled but still a tough race for silver and bronze. Spain keeping up momentum crushed Turkey 11-0 in the following game and just like the last few days there were one real intense and tight game on the schedule. Iceland welcomed New Zealand for a late night game again in front of a crowded rink, really nice to see that they filled up every one of Iceland’s games!
The Fernz were just as Spain working up momentum and got of to a great start against Iceland, not to unexpected with sniper Thakker opening the show early first period and it was a nice long shot finding the far top corner. A goal that got Iceland going with the crowd cheering them on, first out in the second period with a icy breakaway goal by Flosrun Johannesdottir as only she can do it with her fabulous white gloves and wicked wrists. Nothing compared to what she would do next, because only a few minutes later with New Zealand on the powerplay Flosrun once again managed to get the puck loose and almost out of reach and still she pulled the puck in towards a clean break from the corner waiting out the goalie and putting in the lead goal. If the first one was a beauty this one nothing less than a masterpiece!
Iceland kept it going and had increased the lead before the half way mark was reached by Silvia Björgvinsdottir. Looked really good for Iceland and that silver medal was in reach.
Timeout by New Zealand which paid off immediately on a hard working goal by Rachael Neville-Lamb, Iceland heading into third with a single goal lead and were still the better team looking overall in the game. Some close calls in the first half of the third period for Iceland to increase their lead, among others a wrap-around attempt by Sunna Björgvinsdottir on basically an open net where the puck drifted away from her right at the last second. Instead New Zealand countered with a game-tying goal by captain Helen Murray and it felt a bit bad when the Fernz hustled in another goal just over three minutes from the end taking a 4-3 lead. Time was short and with their goalie pulled out Iceland put up enormous pressure in the New Zealand zone creating several great scoring chances, alas not able to find net before the buzzer and a tough loss in front of the home crowd.

So for the last day Mexico was set for gold, Romania for relegation and Turkey had a fixed 5th place. Spain at 8 points, New Zealand at 7 and Iceland at 6, so it was a medal race indeed. First out of the last day although was Turkey against Mexico and it ended in a great victory for Turkey! You could tell Mexico weren’t really that interested in playing defense and I felt sorry for Maria Meza in net who got to stand there as the Turkish attacks showered forward. I’m certain this game would have looked a lot different if Mexico still hadn’t secured the gold, but the difference isn’t bigger than the old expression "motivation beats class" especially when "class" isn’t really motivated. Turkey took great pride in this win and they should, they went in and gave it their all and deserved the win. There are still a lot to work on for the Turkish team but they show great promise for the future!
As suspected New Zealand got a big win over Romania securing a medal for them even if brilliant Ana Voicu gave them a bit of a scare scoring two goals in just 17 seconds before the end of the second period. New Zealand won 9-3 and were of course going to be at the last game cheering for and Icelandic victory to give NZ the silver medal.
Final day, final game and this was when the Wolfpack stepped up showing what’s what! I can honestly say that had Spain started the tournament with this focus and precision they would have won the gold medal because it was almost surgical how they dismantled Iceland in the final showdown. The Abrisqueta twins finally showed their very finest side and scored one goal each in the first period and it felt like nothing could stop Spain now. And after Carmen Rivera Gil started the second period with an early goal, Iceland decided to switch Elise Väljaots for Gudlaug Thorsteinsdottir in net which I think gave the team the desired effekt. Still with Spain being the dominant force and they were very much looking like the super team from Jaca last year now.
In an extended 4-on-3 situation with three players sitting in the Spanish penalty box Iceland finally got on the board on a powerplay goal by Eva Karvelsdottir. But this was also about as close as it ever got with Alba Gonzalo also stepping up playing her best game in net for the whole tournament. Final score 3-1 with a 42-26 shot advantage ended the tournament with a silver medal for Spain and the bronze going to New Zealand.

Some interesting choices for the best goalie, best defenceman and best forward awards that went to Monica Renteria, Eva Karvelsdottir and Anjali Thakker respectivly. I agreed with Renteria, but I would have gone with Elena Alvares for best defenceman ending the tournament at a superb +/- rating with a lot of excellent defensive plays and Claudia Tellez as best forward, not for being on the top of the scoring sheets but still high up there and great +/- rating in addition to some real game-winning plays against the top teams.

Since there were so many great players at this tournament I couldn’t settle with a single All-Star Team so I made two.
First
G. Monica Renteria, Mexico
D. Elena Alvarez, Spain
D. Macarena Cruz, Mexico
F. Claudia Tellez, Mexico
F. Cagla Baktiroglu, Turkey
F. Sara Danielsson, Spain

Second
G. Alba Gonzalo, Spain
D. Thorbjörg Geirsdottir, Iceland
D. Gemma Ortiz, Spain
F. Anjali Thakker, New Zealand
F. Silvia Björgvinsdottir, Iceland
F. Vega Muñoz, Spain

That being said I can’t begin to say how hard it was to pick out 12 players out of pretty much 30 I would have liked to have on those teams!
And as usual watching these tournaments I’ve made a lot of new favorite players for example the friendly "giant" Cagla Baktiroglu of Turkey, giant might be overstating it but she stands tall against the average female player. Most impressive not only for her great technique, but in my book even more for the wonderful display of sportsmanship and respect towards her fellow players, team mates and opponents alike. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a gentle spirit on the rink surface where she never takes a dirty hit, never use the stick to hack and slash opponents and are always there to give a helping hand, to give an encouraging pat on the back, your kind of silent leader by example!
Could go on and on describing every other player but I won’t, I will however give a standing ovation for Turkey and Romania for working hard and trying hard against teams with a lot more depth than themselves. Kurko, Voicu, Adorjan, Biro, Juga and a few more young ones in Romaina are getting there, they do have a bright future! So does Turkey with some interesting young players, I really liked their +4 defender Alara Lökbas, that’s impressive on a team that lets in a lot of goals! And also liked lining up Basak Demirkol and Selin Yilmaz together starting to find their production against Mexico in the last game.

From what I can tell comparing the level of division 2B to where it was 3 years ago I would say the overall average skill and strength of the players have increased a lot. I remember thinking there was maybe 5 or 6 players that I saw being good enough to play at top level in Sweden, but now I could easily pick out upwards to 20 players of the same or even better quality. For example the line of Vega Muñoz and the Danielsson twins, with their great intensity and finesse I would feel comfortable playing them against pretty much any opponent!
Next up for my own season is checking out the Swedish playoffs and qualifications for the SDHL, then hopefully some Norwegian playoffs before the last adventure before summer heading down through Europe for Worlds division 1B in Katowice, Poland and division 1A the week after in Graz, Austria. Surely a lot of great hockey to be watched still!

The Wolfpack returns next year and I’m also real excited to see Iceland growing stronger each year, even if they finished lower than last year I think the team actually played better now and there were a lot of small circumstances that made the difference and odd goal games against Mexico and New Zealand that could have tilted either way. Especially impressed by their latest debutant on the blueline Teresa Snorradottir who played a superb tournament, even more impressive with her actually being the youngest player in the whole tournament and you could have never guessed with her poise being on the ice!

Thanks for everything Akureyri and Iceland, it has once again been a pleasure and I can’t wait for the next time!!

Mats

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