Robert Rooba (#8) scores for Estonia during the 2017 IIHF World Championships Div IB game against Croatia. Photo: Ian Offers, GBSC.
Top scorer hands Estonia its first win
Estonia edged a tense 4-3 win over Croatia to pick up its first victory of this season's championship and get a boost ahead of tomorrow's relegation decider.
Andrei Makrov, Estonia’s all-time record scorer, struck twice as the Baltic nation picked up its first victory in Belfast.
The experienced forward, playing in his 17th World Championship, paced his team to a 4-3 success over Croatia, easing any relegation fears ahead of Saturday’s crunch game against the Netherlands. He also moves on to 73 goals and 117 points in senior international hockey. For Croatia, though, this defeat means only a regulation-time win over Lithuania would give a shot at a bronze medal.
For Estonia's head coach Jussi Tupamaki, the win was a big boost not only for the team, but for the entire national program.
"Today we saw what it takes to win at this level, we saw how it needs a complete team effort," he said. "Beating Croatia shows that we are capable of winning against good, talented teams. Last year we were close to beating Great Britain, we went to overtime with them; now we've beaten Croatia. It shows that we are making steps forward."
Estonia, winless up to now and limited to just three goals, sprung a surprise in the opening period, grabbing the lead through Makrov in the sixth minute. Lauri Lahesalu deked a shot from the blue line and slipped a pass through to his experienced colleague in the left-hand circle for a one-timer that gave Mate Tomljenovic no chance.
That was not the only opportunity for the Baltic nation. Mislav Blagus forced Aleksandr Petrov to shoot high when well placed in front of the net, then Artjom Gornostajev tried his luck from long range and clipped the outside of the post following a deflection off a Croatian skate. Apart from a breakaway chance for Borna Rendulic, Croatia was quiet.
But a clash between Vadim Vasjonkin and David Brine late in the first period threatened lasting repercussions for the Estonians. Vasjonkin was ejected from the game for boarding and the major penalty gave Blagus the chance to tie the game early in the second period after an Igor Jacmenjak shot was blocked.
"We got a little bit carried away after we took the lead and it cost us," admitted Tupamaki. "That major penalty at the end of the first period really hurt us, but we got our goals at the right time.
"It was a really strong team effort, that's what I told the guys in the locker room. Maybe we didn't always play as smart as we wanted, we didn't follow our game plan to the letter, but we overcame that by fighting hard as a team."
This time, though, Estonia was not about to buckle. After killing another penalty – Villem-Henrik Koitmaa making a big save along the way – there were two quick goals to see Estonia jump to 3-1. Robert Rooba, one of his country’s most exciting talents, produced a fine rush to leave Marko Tadic floundering as he reinstated the lead. Then, 80 seconds later, Roman Andrejev battled out from behind the net and Aleksei Sibirtsev forced the puck home from close range.
Croatia wasn’t done; Rendulic, like Rooba, is one of the brightest prospects for his team and he carved a path through the Estonian defence to present Dominik Kanaet with a goal that halved the deficit. Then he tied it up once again with a power play goal late in the second, smashing home a Blagus feed as he stood wideopen in the left-hand circle. With three more points in this game, the Utica Comets man moved on to 3+5=8 points for the competition.
He was not destined to celebrate his second victory in Belfast, though. Makrov struck again at the start of the third, going clean through off Rooba’s defence-splitting pass and going over Tomljenovic’s shoulder to make it 4-3.
"Andrei's a special guy in many ways, he's a real Estonian warrior," added Tupamaki. "I'm really happy for him because I know how much he wants to win. And I have to take my hat off to him - every time Estonia has called on him to play, he's responded.
That was not quite the final word. Estonia was limited to just two shots in the final stanza as Croatia pressed for another equaliser. A couple of power plays in the last 10 minutes saw the momentum tip back towards the men in red. But Estonia held firm to close out the win - and take a big psychological boost into tomorrow's relegation decider.