Australians advance

U18 women’s team wins qualification


Australia’s Shiarna Tarasenko and Spain’s Maria Serna battle for the puck in the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 Women’s World Championship Division II Group B Qualification. Photo: Jose Juan Gurrutxaga

SAN SEBASTIAN, Spain – Australia swept to victory in the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 Women’s World Championship Division I Group B Qualification in San Sebastian, Spain, sealing top spot with a game to spare after defeating the host and blanking Mexico for an unassailable lead.

Sunday’s game against Romania turned into a procession for Tamra Jones’ triumphant roster, finishing in a 10-0 victory to celebrate that gold medal in style. That victory, and the manner of it, underlined the progress Australia has made in the 12 months since it made its IIHF debut at women’s under-18 level in Austria. Back then, the Aussies needed a shootout to defeat Romania after clawing back a 5-1 deficit; here, they were imperious on their way to gold.

Thursday’s opening game against Spain set the tone. The host nation, making its first appearance in an IIHF women’s U18 tournament, was hopeful of making an impact on home ice. The Australians, though, had learned from their experience in Austria last January and, with several returning players, were ready to spring a surprise in the Basque Country.

It wasn’t an ideal start – Paula Moreno put Spain 1-0 up inside five minutes after an error from goalie Keesha Atkins – but from that point on Australia proved resolute in defence. Between them, Atkins and her goaltending partner Imogen Perry did not concede again for the entire tournament. Atkins, in particular, recovered from that disappointing start to deal with some serious Spanish pressure, finishing with 28 saves in the opening game.

At the other end, despite being outshot by the host, Australia’s finishing proved clinical. Lindsey Kiliwnik tied the scores in the 10th minute, beating Laura Lopez de Ochoa through the five-hole off a pass from captain Natalie Ayris, before two second period goals set up the win. Cleo Mayer got the first on a power play, squeezing the puck inside the post after Lara Azzopardi’s slap shot caused confusion in the slot. The Kiliwnik got her second of the game when Emily Davis-Tope slung the puck across the face of the net, evading a thicket of flashing sticks until Kiliwnik fired it home at the far post.

The third period saw Spain desperately trying to find a way past Atkins while Australia dropped deeper to hold on for the 3-1 win.

Next came Mexico, another u18 debutant, and Australia produced an assured display to win 5-0. Two goals apiece from Ayris and Nicole le Cren led the scoring, Brittany Mendham completed the scoring. At the other end, Atkins and Perry shared the shutout in a resolute display that allowed just 16 shots on the Aussie net.

The other results – comfortable wins for Spain and Mexico over Romania – ensured that Australia’s junior Jills were already assured of top spot before the final game of the competition. But back on the ice of the Txuri Urdin Ice Palace, where colourful murals evoke the giants of 20th-century Spanish painting, there was still something to prove. A year ago, Australia went to its first IIHF championship and struggled to finish seventh out of eight teams by virtue of a hard-fought win over Romania. Now it was time to show just how much progress had been made. An emphatic victory, paced by a hat trick from Madison Poole, saw Romania swept aside. Further goals came from Davis-Tope, Mayer, Emma Steele, Shiarna Tarasenko, Sara Sammons, Rebecca Smith-Birch and Celestine Adams, while the shot count finished 69-9 in favour of the Green-and-Gold. Perry took over the goaltending duties and finished the tournament without giving up a single goal.

Sunday’s late game saw Spain defeat Mexico 3-2 to take the silver medal. Victoria Belen Serrano’s goal just before the half-hour mark proved to be decisive. Mexico’s Natalia Amaya added an assist to her six goals earlier in the competition and finished as the leading scorer.

Australia’s progress is a reward for several years of effort in establishing its junior women’s program. At present, there are about 80 young players in the system and, with more nations entering U18 women’s teams every year, the Australian Ice Hockey Federation is hopeful that a competitive junior team will feed seamlessly into a strong women’s national team.

Last season, when the senior women won Division IIB gold in Spain following the U18’s debut in Austria, offered some signs of that plan paying off; this year, with Australia heading to Korea for its Division IIA tournament on the Olympic ice of PyeongChang in April, the team can already look to its juniors for inspiration.

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