David Clarke in action for Great Britain against Croatia in the teams' first game at the World Championship Division IB in Belfast. Photo: Ian Offers, GBSC.
Third frame settles tight game
Britain left it late to subdue a spirited Croatian performance and claim a victory in its first World Championship game on home ice for quarter of a century.
It took some time for the host nation to shake off a stubborn Croatia, but two goals early in the third period ultimately lifted Great Britain to a 4-2 victory in its opening game.
Dave Clarke, one of the most experienced players on Pete Russell’s roster, grabbed the all-important go-ahead goal in the 44th minute. He advanced down the left and smashed a powerful shot over Mate Tomljenovic’s stick to make it 2-1 for GB and help the team avoid a case of first-night nerves.
Then, three minutes later, the Brits made it 3-1 when Robert Dowd’s interception in the Croatia zone created a chance for Evan Mosey to double the lead. That was Dowd's third point of the game, and gave the host nation the kind of cushion it needed to see out the game.
"I thought we were pretty solid through the game," Dowd said afterwards. "We took a couple of soft penalties that killed our momentum but I don't think we ever felt in too much danger. It's a great start for the team."
Even then, Croatia made things anxious. David Brine, who plays in Britain with Cardiff Devils, pulled a goal back with six minutes to play, converting his team's second five-on-three power play of the night. Brine was first to a looping puck after Rendulic's shot was blocked and, after a long look at the video, the officials ruled that the goal was good.
It wasn't until the 59th minute that Russ Cowley, playing in his final tournament before retirement, put the outcome beyond doubt when he got the touch on Robert Lachowicz's shot to ensure that the majority of the crowd went home happy.
However, both the team and its noisy ‘Barmy Army’ of fans were aware that Croatia did more than enough to make life uncomfortable for a team hoping that home ice advantage can bring an improvement on two last-day disappointments in the past two seasons at this level.
Hosting World Championship action for the first time in 25 years, Great Britain took a little time to settle against a stubborn Croatia line-up. A couple of penalties in the early exchanges disrupted the team’s rhythm and offered the visitor a couple of decent looks at Ben Bowns’ net. But gradually the Brits warmed to their task and duly forged ahead on their first power play of the game. Dowd got the goal, stepping up from the blue line to zing a wrister through traffic and leave Mate Tomljenovic grasping at thin air.
If GB hoped that the opening goal would settle any nerves, it reckoned without Croatia’s determination to crash the party in Belfast. And when Britain hit penalty trouble, Borna Rendulic stepped up to boss the power play. He orchestrated his team’s offence on a 40-second 5-on-3 advantage and got his reward just as GB got a fourth player back on the ice. He picked out Nathan Perkovich, Brine got involved and the subsequent scramble on Bowns’ doorstep ended with Mislav Blagus tying the game from close range in the 29th minute.
"I thought we dominated in five-on-five, and even in five-on-four," said head coach Russell. "It was just that second period when we got a bit stationary, but in the end we were turning them around all the time."
Now opportunities were coming at both ends: Evan Mosey released Jon Phillips on a dangerous raid that Tomljenovic halted, while Croatia continued to give Bowns cause for concern. But that double strike early in the final frame decided the outcome.
"Croatia are no mugs, they've got players who train and play in the KHL," Russell added. "It was a good start, and I think we'll get better as the tournament goes on."