Edgar Protcenko celebrates his game-winning goal for Lithuania against Croatia at the 2017 IIHF World Championship Div IB. Photo: Ian Offers, GBSC.
Comeback win seals third place
Lithuania claimed bronze for the fourth season running after recovering from 0-1 down to beat Croatia in its final game of its 2017 Div IB campaign.
Lithuania claimed a bronze medal for the fourth Division IB campaign in a row as goals from Mindaugas Kieras, Edgar Protcenko and Ugnius Cizas delivered a 3-1 win over Croatia.
The result was also Lithuania's first victory over Croatia in four attempts, underlining the steady progress made by the Baltic nation.
For head coach Bernd Haake, the tournament lived up to expectations. "We're going home with a medal, so this is a success for us," he said. "We knew before we came that Japan and Britain were the real candidates for the gold medal and for us it was about staying ahead of the rest.
"It was our discipline and our hard work at camp that got us here."
Both teams had hopes of a podium finish ahead of the game, but the Baltic nation had the advantage, needing just one point to guarantee third place. Croatia required a victory in regulation and a favourable result in the Estonia – Netherlands game that would follow if it was to reach the podium.
After losing on Friday, both teams were eager to end the week on a high. Lithuania’s loss to promotion-chasing Japan followed the formbook, but Croatia’s 3-4 reverse against Estonia was an unhappy surprise for a team looking to secure its first medal since 2014. The team also lost David Brine in that game after the Cardiff Devils forward took a big hit.
Croatia made the brighter start, and was almost presented with a goal when Lithuania’s goalie produced a sloppy clearance from behind the net and set up Mislav Blagus with a look at an empty net; Kieras got back to spare his goaltender’s blushes with a vital interception on that occasion, but could do nothing as Matija Milicic opened the scoring in the 11th minute with a goal on the wraparound.
"This was a hard game for us," Haake added. "We deserved it, but the stats show each team had 26 shots on goal. Croatia certainly had its chances but our young goalie, Artur Pavliukov, saved us."
Kieras, though, is renowned as the warrior of Lithuanian hockey and he wasn’t about to allow a medal chance to slip away easily. In the 16th minute he came up with the equaliser, collecting a Darius Pliskauskis feed in the deep slot and flipping a wrist shot over Vilim Rosandic’s shoulder. A tied game, and bronze was heading to Vilnius.
The Lithuanians tightened their grip on a medal in the second period when Protcenko made it 2-1 in the 25th minute. His slap shot from the top of the circle went through traffic to beat Rosandic.
Croatia’s goalie pulled off a spectacular diving stop early in the third. Seemingly stranded behind the net, he hurled himself back on to the crease to deny Emilijus Krakauskas when a goal seemed certain.
But he had no answers seconds later when Cizas got Lithuania’s third. Arnoldas Bosas stripped Luka Jarcov of the puck on the blue line and dropped a pass onto Cizas’ stick for a close range finish. Croatia made one last push, pulling Rosandic for a late power play, but Lithuania successfully closed out the game.
Lithuania received its bronze medals right after the lunchtime game, enabling the team to make an afternoon flight back home.
And, according to Haake, the future is bright. "We know we are only looking at one more season for our veterans, they will retire after 2018, so we're looking to our young guys to step up," he said. "It's not just the goalie, we had some young defencemen who did well for us here. Now it's their turn to push Lithuanian hockey forward. It's our future, and it's a new generation emerging."
Croatia, with one win from its five games, could yet be embroiled in a three-way tie at the foot of the table if the Dutch get the better of Estonia on Saturday afternoon. However, Enio Saccilotto’s team is unlikely to be pushed into last place thanks to its convincing 6-2 victory over the Dutch earlier in the competition.