IIHF Worlds

New Zealand Under-18s relegated after loss to Bulgaria

The New Zealand under-18 men’s ice hockey team have ended their 2019 IIHF World Championship campaign with a 5-1 loss to tournament hosts Bulgaria. The result sees the Kiwi side relegated back down to Division 3 Group B after failing to secure a win in their five games.

The end result doesn’t tell the full picture however, as the Under-18s showed a significant amount of promise for the future with close games against Israel, Turkey and Mexico.

Considering how bunched this competition was, if those three outcomes – decided by overtime, a last-minute goal, and the shootout respectively – went the other way in New Zealand’s favour, then Steve Reid’s squad could have been looking at a potential medal placing.

Silver medalists Iceland, bronze medal winners Israel, plus Turkey all finished with 9 points. If New Zealand capitalised on their opportunities they could have finished with 7 points rather than 2. Unfortunately, that’s a scenario that just wasn’t mean to be this time around.

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In their final game they were up against a much stronger Bulgarian side who ended the week undefeated. The hosts were dominant throughout, only allowing 11 goals while scoring 21, resulting in a gold medal-worthy performance and promotion to the IIHF’s U18 Division 2 Group B.

Bulgaria jumped out to a two-goal lead over New Zealand after the first period with goals coming from Alexandar Nikolov and Kaloyan Vachkov.

NZ starting goalie Rhett Wilson doing all he could to keep his team in the game, only allowing a powerplay goal to Konstantin Dikov in the second period.

Moussa Abdi made it 4-0 to Bulgaria five minutes into the third, before Auckland’s Max Vesper scored on the man-advantage to try spark a comeback with less than ten minutes remaining, only for Bulgaria’s Simeon Tsitselkov to answer back 36 seconds later – securing the 5-1 victory in front of an emphatic home crowd at the Winter Sports Palace in Sofia.

Queenstown’s Noah Gregory finished the tournament as New Zealand’s top scorer, tallying four goals and two assists in their five games. Alternate captain Jack Robbie was awarded team MVP honours.

For a young side that displayed a willingness to compete with plenty of fight, these were hard lessons to learn, but the results will come eventually. As they say in professional sport, trust the process.

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Photos: Kostadin Andonov