The SSE Arena in Belfast.
All to play for as GB faces Japan
The host nation is hoping it will be third time lucky in Belfast, while Japan looks to return to Division IA at the first attempt. A thrilling climax awaits.
It’s Super Saturday in Belfast! The final day’s play in World Championship Division IB wraps up with a gold medal showdown between Great Britain and Japan. Earlier, the Netherlands have to beat Estonia to retain any hope of staying in the division, while Lithuania can take bronze with an overtime loss or better against Croatia.
It’s the GB-Japan clash that really grabs the imagination. The Brits have been here twice before in the last two years, only to lose out at the last. In 2015 it was Lithuania that scored late on to deny Britain the win that would have sealed promotion to Division IA. Last time it was a similar story against Ukraine. On both occasions, the team was within moments of gold, only to see it snatched away in the final six or seven minutes.
“A lot of players remember that and it really burns,” said defenceman Ben O’Connor. “You can’t really imagine how it feels to lose by a point on the last day. It’s something that stays with you all summer, you can’t get it out of your system.”
Those previous, painful losses, came on the road in Zagreb and Eindhoven. This time, O’Connor hopes that home advantage might just be the push that can get Britain over the line.
“We’re expecting even more fans to come along at the weekend, but it’s more than just the support,” he said. “It’s those little home comforts. Everything’s in your own language, you can just pop out to the shops and get things you’re used to, you’re spending your own currency, you get to watch your own TV. It’s just little things like that, but they add up.”
Britain’s performances have added up to four wins from four, culminating in a 14-0 thrashing of the Netherlands on Friday, but Japan is also undefeated. The line of Daisuke Obara, Hiroki Ueno and Yushiroh Hirano has been in particularly impressive form with 23 points between them so far.
Hirano, 21, is one of the brightest prospects in Japanese hockey and he’s been watching Britain’s progress carefully in the competition.
“We’ve seen their games and it’s obvious that they have big players, they can play tough and if we make any mistakes they will use that to create scoring chances on us,” he said. “We have to make sure we cut out any silly errors and make it as hard as possible for them.”
Home advantage shouldn’t be a factor, Hirano reckons. The Japanese roster is a tight unit, and is ready for the challenge. “Even though we’re only together for a short period, we’ve been really quick to gel this year,” he added. “We have really good communication, and it’s not just on the ice. We have that in the locker room, and all through our time in Belfast. It’s a good chemistry.”
While Japan and GB hope to be upwardly mobile, it’s a different story for the Dutch. Anything less than victory in regulation over Estonia will mean a swift return to Division IIA; even three points may not be enough, depending on Croatia's result against Lithuania in the earlier game.
The problems facing the Dutch are not wholly unexpected. Unable to call on up to 14 key players due to Tilburg’s playoff run in Germany and other factors, a short-benched team has been competitive in patches but has struggled to put together a full 60-minute game. Estonia, meanwhile, made a slow start here, but impressed in a 4-3 victory over Croatia on Friday.
Croatia could, theoretically, still be dragged into the relegation battle. Defeat to Lithuania would leave it on three points and, in the event of a Netherlands win, the bottom three would be tied with one victory apiece. Most likely, though, the afternoon game will determine the destiny of the bronze medals. Lithuania could be on the podium for the fourth year running if it snaps a two-game losing streak, but a Croatian win would bring its first hardware since 2014.